Women in Space

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa talks in a Tufts podcast about her career and how mentoring is crucial for advancing in STEM fields

Space wasn’t always on Ellen Ochoa’s radar. Her path zigzagged its way from a love of music in high school, a undergraduate degree in physics, and a doctorate in electrical engineering to developing optical systems for image processing and leading a NASA research team in high-performance computing. And then, in 1990, she was selected for NASA’s astronaut program. In 1993, she served on a nine-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery, becoming the first Hispanic-American woman to go to space. After three more flights and nearly 1,000 hours in space, Ochoa became director of the Johnson Space Center at NASA in 2013.

So how did this flute player make her way to outer space? In a conversation with Professor Karen Panetta, dean of graduate education at the Tufts School of Engineering, Ochoa discusses her love of music—she even played her flute in space—and how she navigated her path to NASA. She also gives advice to students and describes her own role models, while sharing her perspectives on the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Ochoa visited Tufts University in April to deliver the Women in STEM Lecture, and she will be the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree from the university this year.

KAREN PANETTA: We’ve got an exciting interview with Dr. Ellen Ochoa today. She’s a veteran astronaut, inventor, and past director of the Johnson Space Center. Ellen, welcome.

ELLEN OCHOA: Thank you.

PANETTA: Today we’re going to talk about your perspectives on the past, present, and future of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, otherwise known as the STEM disciplines. So, Ellen, today’s young people are supposed to start seriously thinking about their education and career aspirations at the ripe old age of fifteen. Now, you’ve had a stellar career in a range of topics from everything from image processing and high-performance computing. Was your path to becoming an astronaut always part of your life plan or did you zigzag and find your own way?

OCHOA: Oh, it was definitely a zigzag. A lot of times people ask me, “Well, during the Apollo program, was this something that you decided to do?” I have to kind of remind folks that, of course, there were no women astronauts at that time—very few who worked at NASA at all. So, nobody would ever ask a girl, “Would you like to grow up to be an astronaut?” It certainly wasn’t something I thought of at all.

In high school, I unfortunately hardly took any science. Just didn’t think I was interested in it. I was interested in music. My big thing was band—marching band and concert band. I was in the California All-State Honor Band, things like that. But I did take a lot of math and I really liked math. So when I went off to college, and I went to our local college, San Diego State University, I thought, “Well, I might major in music.” I was also thinking about business and I decided against those. Then I tried a variety of other things, and it wasn’t really till the end of my second year, I was finishing up the calculus series, which I just decided to take to finish up, and really talked to the other students about, “Why are you in this class? What are you majoring in?”

Of course, most of the students in there were either doing engineering or physics or chemistry. So I went off and talked to a couple of different professors. I didn’t really know anything about those fields. This will probably sound familiar to you, but I got a range of responses, shall we say. I went to talk to a professor in the double E department, and he was not at all what you would call encouraging. He said, “Well, you know, we had a woman come through here once, but you know, it’s a really hard program and you know, I just don’t know that you’d be really be interested in doing it.”


Ellen Ochao keeps up with her musical side during a space mission to the International Space Station. Photo: NASAEllen Ochao keeps up with her musical side during a space mission to the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Then I went to talk to a professor in the physics department, who—I got quite a different response from him. First of all, he said, “Well, yeah, I’d like to tell you about physics and tell me how much math you’ve had.” So I said, “Well, I’m finishing up the calculus series right now.” He said, “Well, that’s great, because if you start into the physics series, you’ll already know the language of physics and you’ll be able to really focus on the concepts. And most of the other people in the class will be doing that concurrently, trying to learn both the language and the concepts.” So he said, “You know, I think you’ll do really well.” Then he also explained to me some of the things that people do when they have physics degrees, different areas that you can go into.

That was really important, too, because again, I didn’t know anything about physics. I never talked to a physicist. So I couldn’t really picture in my mind what it would mean.

PANETTA: I’m hoping that you, at one point, went back to that electrical engineering professor and said, “Look where I am now, dude.”

OCHOA: Well, I never did. I always try to think about if I had really, really wanted to do double E, I hope that wouldn’t have discouraged me. I think, in my life, when I really wanted to do something, I went after it. But I was really just on a fishing expedition. What those professors said really made a difference to me. So I selected physics.

PANETTA: Awesome. One of the things we talk about is how important role models are for inspiring young people to pursue the STEM disciplines, especially for women and underrepresented groups of individuals. You talked about your physics professor, but were there other role models in your life, even if they weren’t STEM professionals, that gave you that determination, so that when somebody said no, you took it more as a challenge and said, “Well, just watch me now? I’m going to do it anyway.”

OCHOA: Sure. I would say the person that had the biggest influence on my life was my mom. She was just very interested in learning in general. I’m sure she had this idea that all of us getting a good education, I have four brothers and sisters, was important for our futures. But she also just really loved learning, and I think that was something that we all picked up from her.

After I selected physics, I ended up deciding to go to graduate school. Actually, while I was a physics undergrad is when NASA selected the first class of astronauts that was going to train specifically for this new vehicle they were developing called the space shuttle. Of course, that was the first class that included women and the first class that included minority astronauts.

That was a big deal. But I had just gotten into physics, so I still really wasn’t thinking anything about space. Then I went off to Stanford for graduate school, and the year I was getting my master’s is when the shuttle flew for the first time. So again, really different kind of spacecraft and a lot of what it was going to be used for was research: science and engineering research. Couple of years later, Sally Ride flew. First American woman in space. She had been a physics major like I had. She had gone to Stanford; I was currently at Stanford. Clearly there were six women in that class and I think they all had an impression on me. But because I could see some of these things I had that were similar to Sally Ride and her background, that was really the first inkling in my brain of, “Wow, you can get a Ph.D., you can be headed on a research career and you could actually do research in space if you got selected.”

PANETTA: A few weeks ago, as part of our Women in Space series here at Tufts University, we had Debbie Martinez, the execution manager of research activities at NASA Langley Research Center, speak.

OCHOA: Yes, I know Debbie.

PANETTA: She’s a powerful role model herself. Yet she talked about how she always considered you as a role model for her and how your mentorship has inspired her through her own career aspirations. How important do you think it is to have role models throughout our careers and not just when we’re trying to pick that initial career as we enter schools?

OCHOA: I think it’s important, and it was certainly important for me. I have also tried to play that role in the various different positions I had at NASA. But when I first joined NASA, which was before I was selected as an astronaut, and I joined as a research engineer, my supervisor really pushed me and gave me some positions with higher visibility and more responsibility. Things I wasn’t even thinking about yet at that time. Then, after I was selected as an astronaut, there were a variety of people in the astronaut office who reached out. If I had a particular role on a mission—was trying to find out more about how I could do it better, I would go around and talk to other folks and they were very willing to help.

Even when I was deputy center director at Johnson Space Center, the person I worked for—the center director at that time, Mike Coats—was just really good about making sure that I saw all aspects of the job, so that someday when he retired I would at least be a strong candidate. He wouldn’t be the one that selected his successor, but he would certainly make recommendations and comments about people. So he was very intentional about there wasn’t some part of the job that I hadn’t seen or hadn’t done. That was really important.

PANETTA: One of the questions that people might ask is, “OK, how do I go about finding a mentor?” Do you just walk up and say, “Hey, be my mentor?” What advice would you have for somebody who knows they want a mentor, and maybe their own manager is not that person? What would you suggest?

OCHOA: A few different things. First of all, it’s great if you work for an organization that really has a formal mentoring program, and we did do that at Johnson Space Center. So a mentor could say, “Here’s the areas or here’s the questions I have that I really like to explore.” It was a one-year commitment. So it had a beginning; it had an end. I think that helps when you’re looking for mentors, because often people who are higher-up, they’re talking to a variety of people and trying to fit it in with their day job.

But if you don’t have a formal program, I think it’s important to think through. You can actually have three or four mentors at one time, right? Because you’re exploring different aspects of how you might be growing and getting new skills. You may want somebody who’s in your own department, for example, because they can help you understand what’s important for success in your own department.

But maybe that person’s a man and you’re also looking for a woman to help give you a perspective. You might find that. I think if you go up and you say, “I’m really interested in developing my skills. These are some of the things I might be interested in further on in my career. I’d be interested in your advice.” I think people are almost always willing to give advice and then, if that seems to go well, you can say, “Could we have more of an ongoing relationship?”

It’s helpful if you define parameters like, “Can I meet you once a month for coffee?” Something where the person that you are talking to can easily say, “Yeah, that’s something I can fit my schedule and I’m interested in helping this person.”

PANETTA: Really great advice. So you have two boys and one of the things that I’m wondering is, when they were growing up with mom who’s a pilot, mom who was an astronaut, was that no big deal to them because it was so used to it? Or did they think you were cool, or is it like every other parent? We’re never cool.

OCHOA: It is hard when you’re a parent to be cool in any sense. I would say it was a little less unusual where we grew up, because, of course, we grew up around Johnson Space Center. Where my kids grew up, I mean. So in their elementary school, they often had another kid in their class whose parent was an astronaut, too. It wasn’t like they were the only ones in the school, just because of where we lived.

But I think as they actually branched out, and maybe they’d go to a summer camp somewhere, where it wasn’t in Houston or where they went off to work someplace in their first jobs. It wasn’t right around the space center. Then they had a little more fun saying what their mom did, because it was really unusual then.

PANETTA: How often did you get to call home from space to talk to your kids?

OCHOA: By the time in my final mission, first of all, we did have the ability to call home. We docked to the International Space Station and they had an IP phone so you could call. You could actually call a phone number, which I hadn’t been able to do on any of my earlier flights.

Now, my kids were really little. One was three and a half, one turned two while I was in orbit. Just to give you some perspective, we’ve got the three-and-a-half year old on the phone. Of course, he had gone down to Florida to watch the launch and he got to go in a NASA plane and it was probably the first plane ride he actually remembers. So I’m talking to him from the International Space Station and I said, “Wilson, you know, what’d you think of the launch?” He goes, “Mommy, I got to ride in an airplane.” I said, “Well, that’s really exciting. And, what did you think of the launch?” He said, “Mom, it was a blue and white airplane.” You know kids, it’s really all about them.

PANETTA: There you go. Very good. Really. That’s amazing. Now you’ve logged over a thousand hours on space missions. Can you tell us about any time you had to deal with the challenge that arose while you were in space that requires you to solve an issue that you didn’t anticipate? Because one of the things that I’m always trying to promote to my students is: engineering is not just expecting everything to go the right way.

OCHOA: In fact, it almost never does.

PANETTA: Can you tell us about some of those episodes?

OCHOA: I will say, first of all, nothing big went wrong on any of my missions. We were fortunate in that way, and we were able to achieve all the objectives on all of my missions. But the vast majority of our training—and we usually train for about a year ahead of a launch—is based on things not going right. You spend just a little bit of time going through the procedures as they’re written, and then you spend most of the rest of the training period trying to figure out how you will work around problems that you have.

It really is that whole mindset, because once you are in space, you need to figure out how to make it work, no matter what goes wrong. Of course, you have a team on the ground that’s helping you, but you really need to know the systems well. There were lots of little issues that happened, but we were well-equipped, either onboard ourselves or working with the ground, to actually work through them.

PANETTA: That’s a really incredible lesson for all engineers to learn.

OCHOA: You always have to have a plan B, and then a plan C.

PANETTA: And D, E, F, G. Now NASA is planning on going back to the moon. Oftentimes we have people say that space exploration is too expensive and taxpayer dollars would be better spent on other things. Can you talk about some of your favorite technology transfer innovations that have been borne out of NASA research?

OCHOA: Sure. There’s such a wide variety and, in fact, NASA puts together a book—which is also available online, called Spinoffs, literally every year—of things that have grown out of NASA work that are now available and being used in other industries. I will say, just going back to the original part of the question is, all of NASA, which is all of human space flight, planetary space flight, earth science, aeronautics research, is about one half of 1 percent of the federal budget.

So when people always say “All this money,” I just have to put it a little bit in perspective compared to the entire budget. For that, you get new scientific knowledge, you get new technologies, and you get leadership in just the whole area of space, which is important globally and has allowed us to really bring along a large global collaboration in terms of the International Space Station.

Of course, you get economic benefits because of these technology transfers to many different industries. And it really serves as inspiration. There are many people that have gone into science and engineering because of what NASA does. There are even people who have achieved great things in completely different fields, just from the inspiration they got from what NASA does. A lot of ones that have been transferred had been in the medical area, for example.

Because NASA has always had this need to have medical care in a remote hazardous environment, and we need small equipment, we need very lightweight equipment. We may need to talk to doctors over a satellite link. So a lot of telemedicine and devices have come out of what NASA challenged.

PANETTA: Do you think NASA will be using any augmented reality or virtual reality or did you use any virtual reality when you were up there?

OCHOA: They use it for training.

PANETTA: For training?

OCHOA: Absolutely, yes.

PANETTA: With the onset of artificial intelligence…

OCHOA: Initially for spacewalk training, definitely have used it. And even now, they’re using it to have people evaluate what different kinds of habitats, either in space or on a place like the moon or Mars, how you would actually design that and how you would operate in that without needing to build more expensive mockups, at least initially. So yes, absolutely, and more and more there’s applications for that.

PANETTA: Can you talk about how going back to the moon fits into the grand scheme of future space exploration or even earth-observing systems?

OCHOA: We want to understand more about what we can learn. Of course, generally, we send probes out in advance of humans. But when you look at even the amazing work that rovers have done on Mars, I remember at the time that Spirit or Opportunity had been there eight years and they said, “Well, it’s traveled as far as we did with the Lunar Rover in three days.” If you actually can get people out there and give them some mobility, I think the science return is just going to be tremendous.

It’s also about learning how to live in another environment. I don’t know exactly when that’s going to become an imperative, but I think we need to start learning about it now. It’s science, but it’s other reasons as well. Mars is really that horizon goal. Not that maybe we’ll want to stop with Mars, but it’s certainly that place that we feel we will learn a lot about the history of Earth, if we understand more about Mars.

However, it’s eight months or nine months away and a mission is probably something like three years. The moon is two or three days away. So there’s a lot that we can learn. There’s a lot that we can test out on the moon. I’m excited. I hope we can carry out the plans. Or I hope NASA can. I’m retired from NASA now, but I still use “we,” because I was there for thirty years and it’s a big part of me.

PANETTA: We want to thank you, Ellen, for being with us here at Tufts University, where you will be receiving an honorary doctorate from the School of Engineering at the 2019 commencement, which we’re all very excited.

OCHOA: I’m very honored to have been selected for that.

HOST:Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at tellmemore@tufts.edu. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U.

Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Anna Miller, Dave Nuscher, and Steffan Hacker. This episode was edited by Eugene Kong. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to Lynne Powers and the School of Engineering Graduate Programs and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.

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