Dr. Ellen Ochoa became the first Latina to go to space when she boarded the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. She made history again this month by becoming the first Hispanic and second female director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
The 54-year-old succeeds Michael L. Coats, who retired at the end of last year after leading the Johnson Space Center (JSC) since 2005. Before taking her new position, Ochoa was the deputy director at the Center for five years.
“Ellen’s enthusiasm, experience and leadership, including her superb job as deputy director, make her a terrific successor to Mike as director of JSC,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who made the announcement late last year.
Ochoa, who was born in California and is of Mexican descent, will be in charge of overseeing about 13,000 workers as the JSC’s new director. The JSC is based in Houston, Texas. It is the place where astronauts are trained to go on space missions. It also houses the Mission Control Center, which directs all space shuttle missions.
Ochoa joined NASA in the late 1980s as a research engineer and moved up the ranks until becoming an astronaut in July 1991. She was 34-years-old when she served her first space mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. She went on three additional shuttle missions after that, logging a total of 978 hours in space.
Ellen Ochoa: ‘Being an astronaut is a wonderful career’
Growing up in California, Ellen Ochoa didn’t consider space exploration as a career path. Part of the reason for that was because there were no female astronauts when she was growing up.
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics from San Diego State University and a master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University.
It was during graduate school that Ochoa became interested in space exploration. She joined the NASA research team when she was a doctoral student at Stanford. That’s when her NASA career took off.
Now, she has two schools named after her—one in Pasco, Washington, and another in Cudahy, California—and is viewed by many young Latinos as a role model.
“Being an astronaut is a wonderful career,” Ochoa said to students shortly after her first flight to space. “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.”