Ellen Ochoa: 1958—: Astronaut
Ochoa was born 1958 in Los Angeles, but grew up in the San Diego area. Her Mexican heritage came to her through her father, but her parents had divorced by the time she was in her teens. Ochoa's mother struggled to raise five children as a single parent, but found time to take college courses in her spare time—setting an important example for Ochoa, her three brothers, and sister. All were achievers and award-winners in the La Mesa public schools, and Ochoa was valedictorian of her 1975 graduating class at Grossmont High. Offered a four-year scholarship to Stanford University in Palo Alto, near San Francisco, Ochoa chose to study at San Diego State University so that she could be near her two younger brothers, still in high school at the time.
Early on, Ochoa considered a career in journalism. She took writing, business, and computer science courses before settling on physics as her major. When she graduated in 1980, she was once again the valedictorian of her class. From there Ochoa entered Stanford University, where she earned both a master's degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate by 1985. While at Stanford, Ochoa met graduate students who were interested in NASA's astronaut training program, and realized that she might qualify for it as well. The candidates' program had only began accepting women in 1978, and the first Latino astronaut, Rodolfo Neri, flew his first space shuttle flight in 1985. Ochoa applied to the program that same year.
After finishing her doctorate, Ochoa began her career as a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California. She found her niche in the Imaging Technology Branch and, with others, worked on optical inspection systems and other new technologies. In time she would share three patents for her research work. Meanwhile, Ochoa leaned she had become one of a hundred finalists for the NASA training program. The following year, in 1988, she was hired at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at its Ames Research Center. Here Ochoa worked on computational systems for aerospace missions.
Ochoa won a highly coveted place in the astronaut training program in January of 1990. Over the next year, she underwent a series of physical and mental challenges. The trainees had to undergo rigorous courses and testing in the space sciences, astronomy, geology, oceanography, meteorology, first aid, survival techniques, and the complex systems of space shuttle design. They were expected to know every part of the shuttle and each part's function. In an interview with her Stanford Department of Engineering Alumni Report, Ochoa said that her diversified background helped. "If you are motivated to excel in one area, you are usually motivated to excel in others. NASA looks for that."