Ellen Ochoa, mission specialist. (Courtesy NASA)

Ellen Ochoa, mission specialist. (Courtesy NASA)

From first Latina in space, to head of the Johnson Space Center

This month, Dr. Ellen Ochoa, a four-time astronaut and the first Latina to go to space, launched into the next era of her stellar career. She became the first Hispanic and second female director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC).

“It’s really quite an honor,” says Ochoa who spent the last five years as deputy director. “I learned about being a senior leader and how the center operates, and I’ve had the opportunity to train for this role…There’s a wonderful history here, and I’m really excited about what we’re doing, and it’s an honor to lead them and represent them.”

Born in California, and of Mexican descent, Ochoa is also a classical flutist and practices every morning before heading to work. She says space travel wasn’t always in her plans. It didn’t become a prospect in her life’s agenda until sometime in graduate school, when she says she first started noticing women in the field.

“When the first space shuttle took off in 1981, Sally Ride flew for the first time,” says, Ochoa who was busy getting a PhD to be a research engineer at the time. “Putting that all together with my interest in space is what led me to apply.”

She says the versatility and excitement offered caused her to gravitate towards a career in space.

“You could do research in lots of different areas,” says Ochoa who enjoyed learning about living and working in space, in addition to repairing spacecrafts. “The wide variety of tasks you could do with the space shuttle is something that really interested me.”

She says she still remembers a moment in her final space mission clearly.

“We had docked in the international space center,” says Ochoa. “We were looking down at the Earth, and we were watching bright green auroras, and the sun came up and it illuminated the station instantaneously. It was just an amazing visual view. It was amazing to see what we were building in space, and we had an international crew…There were a lot of amazing thoughts associated with that moment.”

Fast forward years later, and the 54-year-old former astronaut is now responsible for overseeing approximately 13,000 employees at the JSC. She describes her day as being pretty varied.

“A lot of it is understanding what everybody is doing and current issues,” says Ochoa, explaining she has to make sure shuttles are safe and effective, research how they can be made more affordable, and educate about the benefits space travel brings to people here on Earth.

At a time when the Center’s budget has shrunk significantly, Ochoa has several challenges ahead of her, but she says she’s keeping her focus.

“I’m making sure we move exploration forward as best as we can,” she says, mentioning one of the big developments right now — the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle. “The Orion spacecraft is capable of going to many destinations…further away and doing them more affordably.”

She says the announcement was made last week that first test flight with the first rocket — Exploration Mission 1– should happen in 2017. According to Ochoa, a combined rocket and spacecraft gets the vehicle to a higher velocity to the moon.

“We want to look at how we do things, and what partnerships we can make so we can use not only our talented people, but be out in the commercial industry,” says Ochoa, who is also looking into agreements with universities for research development, as well as international partners.

She says she is honored to have participated in different roles involving human space flights throughout her career.

“Being an astronaut, and part of a team, is really rewarding, and now I have a different perspective,” says Ochoa. “The end goal is still the same — carrying out exciting and challenging missions is space.”

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