In 1993, Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman to travel to space, serving on a nine-day mission aboard the shuttle Discovery. Ochoa began her career as a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories and NASA Ames Research Center. There, she invented and researched optics systems for automated space exploration, and supervised dozens of engineers and scientists. In 1990, she was selected as an astronaut. She went on to fly in space four times.
In total she has logged nearly 1,000 hours in orbit, while serving as a mission specialist, payload commander, and flight engineer. After retiring from spacecraft operations, Ochoa made history again as the first Hispanic director of the Johnson Space Center. The center is home to NASA’s astronaut corps and mission control center – and boasts a budget of more than $4 billion. For her many accomplishments, Ochoa was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and has received the Distinguished Service Medal, NASA’s highest award. Moreover, she has six schools named after her, several books written about her, and has received honorary doctorates from Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University, among others.
In 1980, Ochoa decided to forgo a career as a classical flutist in order to enter graduate school at Stanford University. The campus would prove to be the perfect launching pad for a history-making astronaut. At Stanford, Ochoa specialized in designing optical systems that analyze and draw conclusions about the objects that they "see." She even got to patent some of her graduate research, which only marked the beginning of her success in optics research. During her time as a graduate student, Sally Ride became the first female U.S. astronaut, giving Ochoa the encouragement to aim high. By 1985, she had received both her Master of Science degree and Doctor of Philosophy degree in electrical engineering from Stanford. Besides her academic work, Ochoa also used her skills as a classically trained flutist to win the student soloist award from the Stanford Symphony Orchestra.
Since graduating, Ochoa has remained a valuable part of the Stanford community. For starters, she served for 10 years on the Stanford University Board of Trustees and was a member of the Stanford School of Engineering Advisory Council and Aeronautics and Astronautics Department Visiting Committee. In 1998, she was inducted into El Centro's Alumni Hall of Fame. The hall is part of a campus-wide effort initiated by each of Stanford's four ethnic community centers to recognize alumni of Hispanic backgrounds who have distinguished themselves through exceptional contributions to their community. More recently, in 2019, Ochoa was named a Stanford Engineering Hero for her groundbreaking work both on this planet, and off of it.