Powerful Faces in Mathematics: Dr. Ellen Ochoa

Growing up with an older brother and close male cousins, I witnessed firsthand their love of space through pretend play. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, I would hear over and over again as they wore colanders on their heads and made exaggerated steps. I had the privilege of playing Bystander #1, who (depending on the day) was either really excited for the boys to go to space or was the crying hysteric “you’ll never make it” trope. I never played the astronaut. I never picked my knees up in slow-motion to space walk with my brother, nor rode in the painted cardboard rocket ship, because it never occurred to me that the Final Frontier could be for more than men.

So, this one is for all the little girls out there who long to don the kitchen strainer; get ready to meet your next source of inspiration, Dr. Ellen Ochoa.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Ellen Ochoa was 11 years old when the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. She watched it just like every other American on that July day, but as enthralled as she may have been, it was not that event that made her believe she could go to space. That did not come until 1983 when Sally Ride became the first US woman in space on the Challenger space shuttle.

Ellen Ochoa was a second generation American, having grandparents who immigrated from Sonora, Mexico. Education was very important to her family, and Ellen excelled in math and science. She received her BS in physics from San Diego State University and went on to Stanford’s Department of Electrical Engineering where she earned her MS and a doctorate.  It was her research (and subsequent patents) into optical systems that led her to Sandia National Laboratories, the Ames Research Center, and finally onto the Johnson Space Center in 1990.  In 1993, Dr. Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic American woman to go to space on the space shuttle Discovery. She is clear that until Sally Ride made the journey in 1983, she didn’t think it was possible for women to go to space, having the mindset of so many, that until you see it done by someone like you (Ochoa and Ride were both Californians who went to Stanford to study physics) you cannot always see it in yourself.

Since her initial flight, Dr. Ochoa went back to space on three other occasions. In 2007 she became the deputy director of the Johnson Space Center, a post she held for years before becoming director. In 2018 Dr. Ochoa retired from NASA and now serves as the National Science Board chair.

As of today, only 65 women have been to space, compared to nearly 600 men.



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Sara Delano Moore, Ph.D.

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