The Life of the First Latina Astronaut


Bill Stafford - NASA - JSC

(Photo By: Bill Stafford)

Julissa Guevara-Lopez

Ellen Ochoa was the first person of Hispanic descent and first Latina Women in Space. Her life and accomplishments had inspired so many women and people of color to follow their dreams too and make headways in STEM, just as she did.

Ellen Ochoa was born May 10, 1958 and is currently 63 years-old. She was born in Los Angeles, California. Ochoa’s father worked at a Sears, and her mother stayed home to raise her and her four other siblings. Her fathers parents were from Sonora, Mexico, but her mother was from Oklahoma. Her parents got a divorce when she was in high school. This left her to spend more time with her mother. Her mother always knew that her kids needed a good education in order to be successful.

After graduating high school in 1975, she earned her Bachelor’s in Physics from San Diego State University (SDSU). She then got her master degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1981 and 1985. While she was a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories and NASA Ames Research Center, she was able to investigate optical systems. Optical systems are used for information processing such as transmission of data and information, but they can also be used for sensing, recording, storage.

Ochoa applied to the NASA space program in 1985 and joined the program in 1988 as a research engineer at Ames Research Center. Then in 1990, she moved into the Johnson Space Center. There had been other women working in the Center for the past 12 years and a few male astronauts with a Hispanic heritage, but she was the first Hispanic woman. Ochoa was inspired by Sally Ride, who was the first woman to go into space. In 1990, NASA selected Ellen Ochoa to become an astronaut. She completed her astronaut training in July of 1991. In 1993, she served as a mission specialist aboard the STS-56 mission of the space shuttle Discovery. This made her the first Latina to go into space. This was only the beginning of her career as an astronaut. Ochoa was then a part of three other missions in 1994, 1999, and 2002. Her four missions added to a total of about 1,000 hours in orbit. Ochoa told the Harvard Gazette, “I felt like I was contributing to something larger than myself, that benefits people on Earth, and I was willing to take the risk.”

In 2007, Ellen Ochoa retired as an astronaut. She then started working at The Johnson Space Center as the first deputy director and then as the 11th director. Ochoa was the first ever Hispanic and the second woman to hold the position as director. She served as the director from 2013 to 2018. During that time, she was able to do multiple research and exploration projects, such as the first Orion flight test. CNBC interviewed her and she said, “I did get some discouragement” and “I can’t always say whether it was because of my Hispanic background or because I was a woman, because people don’t actually tell you.” Trying to become an astronaut in the 90s and as a Hispanic woman, she was faced sexism, racism, and a lack of other women role models. In response to being asked if she was the only woman in her classes, she said, “I was the only woman. In others, maybe one of two or four. I can only remember one class with more than that.” In the interview, she also talked about how her professor, who worked in the electrical engineering department at SDSU, made it very clear to Ochoa that he did not want her in his department. She finished by noting how, “That’s a pattern I saw throughout graduate school and early in my career: I would run into people who didn’t think I should be there, but also other people who were really supportive.” 

Now, Ellen Ochoa is vice chair of National Science Board (NSB) and she is married to Coe Miles and has two sons. Overall, Ochoa has been able to impact younger women who want to get into STEM occupations and Hispanics who want to make a difference.