Celebrate Latinx Heritage Month with People CHICA's LatinXcellence series, spotlighting the incredible women who are changing the world through their work and activism. Today we focus on Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina to travel to space.

By Alma Sacasa
September 18, 2019 12:49 PM

Here at People CHICA we celebrate our Latinidad 365 days a year, but during Latinx Heritage Month, we go extra hard. Established in 1988, Latinx Heritage Month recognizes the generations of Latinx Americans who have positively influenced and enhanced our society. All month long, we'll be celebrating with a series called #LatinXcellence, highlighting women who are making a difference in Latinx culture today through their art, work and activism.

When most people think of astronauts, they think of men, and if they think of women, they remember Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. But there's another woman who achieved a ton of firsts during her tenure at NASA: Dr. Ellen Ochoa, former director of the Johnson Space Center and the first Latinx woman to go to space.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Ochoa, whose father is of Mexican descent, earned a bachelor's degree in physics from San Diego State University and a master's degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University. After finishing her doctorate, she worked as a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories and then in 1988 joined NASA's Ames Research Center, where she worked on computational systems for aerospace missions. In 1990, she was selected an astronaut, and was tapped for her first mission in 1993, a nine-day mission with aboard the space shuttle Discovery. "The most exciting thing was looking out at Earth from up there," she said of her first time in space. "It was beautiful."

Ochoa's firsts didn't stop there, though. In 2013, she became the first Latinx and second female director of NASA's Johnson Space Center; in 2017, she was inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame. Now retired from federal service, she serves as the vice chair of the National Science Board and has six schools named after her. "Getting to be an astronaut is tough for anybody, not just Hispanics or women," she said in a 1993 interview. "I don't think my background made it harder or easier. I think it's just a matter of working hard to have a very good education."

Growing up, Ochoa didn't at first consider a career as an astronaut - women weren't even allowed in the astronaut corps until she was halfway through college. "It was certainly very important for me to see women astronauts - it hadn't been possible before that 1978 class, and the first six women demonstrated their skill in a way that helped all the women who came after them," she said last year. "So I know that role models make a difference, and I take seriously that part of my career and life." Before she set her sights on space, she actually considered a career in journalism or music; she played flute in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra (and later in space).

"I do as much speaking as I am allowed to do," she's said about her own status as a role model. "I tell students that the opportunities I had were a result of having a good educational background. Education is what allows you to stand out."

Ochoa has also been recognized with NASA's highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, and has received the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for senior executives in the federal government. Her last space mission was in 2002, but she'll remain an inspiration as long as kids dream of becoming astronauts. "Being an astronaut is a wonderful career," Ochoa said after her first 1993 mission. "I feel very privileged. But what I really hope for young people is that they find a career they're passionate about, something that's challenging and worthwhile."

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