Home / Science / The first Latina in space retires from the Johnson Space Center, leaves a legacy of inclusion, equality in the wake

The first Latina in space retires from the Johnson Space Center, leaves a legacy of inclusion, equality in the wake




Ellen Ochoa intentionally walked the campus of the Johnson Space Center, the unusually sunny day as bright and cheerful as her coral jacket.

After 30 years at NASA, the veteran astronaut could walk to the control of the mission with his eyes closed. But that day, the trip was momentous and somewhat definitive.

He was about to see his last space launch as a NASA member tested in battle while two US astronauts. UU They were launched from Russia to the International Space Station. In January, she had quietly announced to her colleagues her plan to retire on May 25 as leader of Johnson, the agency's human space flight center that employs 10,000 contractor employees and employees.

The day, understandably, was bittersweet.

"It is difficult to abandon the mission and it is difficult to leave the people," he said. "It's difficult, absolutely."

Ochoa, now 60, has spent the past five years leading downtown Houston, only the second woman and first Hispanic to do so. But the California native has been a pioneer from the beginning.

He joined the space agency in the late 1980s at the start of the Space Shuttle program, a time when space flights were opened to people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and gender. In 1993, she was the first Latina to go to space. She flew four times in her astronaut career, recording almost 1,000 hours in space.

Ochoa is in the Astronaut Hall of Fame of the United States, has six schools that bear his name, in California, Oklahoma, Washington and Texas, and has become an advocate for girls entering science camps , engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM). She is also a classical flutist.

But Ochoa is not someone who boasts of his list of achievements. Those who work with her describe her as a good model for women, someone intelligent, motivated and compassionate but completely focused on the NASA team and pushing towards the goal of the human exploration agency.

"It focuses on people and cares about the team," said Melanie Saunders, the center's interim assistant director who has worked with Ochoa for more than a decade. "He has spent a lot of time in his position focusing on inclusion and innovation and how we can use employee commitment to drive the advancement of human exploration in space."

But after three decades, Ochoa is ready to take a break. She and her husband, Coe Miles, are moving to Boise, Idaho, a place they have visited often and in which they fell in love.

She will be replaced by Mark Geyer, an Indiana native who has been with NASA for approximately 28 years. He spent several of those years at Johnson, including two as deputy director of Ochoa.

Although Ochoa is ready for a change, she admits it's a difficult time in history to leave, just as the Trump administration has renewed the nation's momentum for human exploration of the moon and beyond.


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"It's hard to leave people and the mission and I think that always makes it difficult to determine when the time is right," Ochoa said. "Obviously we are in the middle of some important developments … but for me it's just a logical type of transition year … It's a good time to try new things."

& # 39; Who would not want? & # 39;

Ochoa first considered & # 39; astronaut & # 39; a seemingly viable career path on April 12, 1981, the day the first space shuttle was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida

The start of the shuttle program was "big event" for the scientist in budding 22-year-old who was pursuing a graduate degree in electrical engineering at Stanford University.

For the first time since the famous speech of John F. Kennedy in 1962, women and minorities had the opportunity to join the exclusive body of astronauts. The mission of the space research and development shuttle program forced NASA to look for more engineers, scientists and doctors.

"NASA was trying to get a wider mix of people in all fields for everything they were doing," Ochoa said. "The design and mission of the shuttle pushed NASA to be more inclusive."

Seven years later, in 1988, the Shuttle program was strengthened when Ochoa entered the NASA Ames Research Center in California as a research engineer. Through the program, NASA sent the first American woman, Sally Ride, to space in 1983, followed by the first African-American, Guion Bluford, later that year. The astronauts on board had deployed and rescued numerous satellites and carried out countless scientific studies in orbit.

The space agency had also recovered from the anguish. In 1986, the seven crew members of the space shuttle Challenger died 73 seconds after takeoff. It was the first major astronaut accident since 1967, when the three Apollo 1 astronauts were killed on the launch pad after a fire broke out inside the cockpit.

Question why you dreamed of being an astronaut and will look at you in disbelief. [19659002] "Who would not want?"

In fact, Ochoa had tried to join NASA as an astronaut three years before Ames hired her as a research engineer in 1988. She first presented it in 1985 but did not make the cut. He tried again in 1987 and came to the interview round, one of the 120 people across the country to do it. Nor did the cut that year.

"I was encouraged to have come this far and more determined to pursue the astronaut corps as a race," Ochoa told US News and World Report in 2017. "I continued to update my application, and I was lucky to be selected in the next class in 1990. "

Michael Coats, who would later call Ochoa his deputy after becoming the director of the Johnson Space Center in 2005, remembers the astronaut interview vividly. Even then, he said, he could say that young Ochoa was destined for great things.

"He impressed us all with his obvious intelligence," Coats said. "She was quick in the draw, but she also impressed us with her poise under pressure."

Iconic photo and mission

Standing with his feet on the stern deck of space shuttle Discovery, Ochoa holds a flute on his lips and starts playing.

Zero gravity has caused his chestnut hair to float wildly around his young face. Manuals and other odds and ends hang suspended in the air around him. She has put her feet on straps on the floor to stay upright.

The 1993 photo is of Ochoa's first trip to space, freezing in time the moment his two worlds collided.

Ochoa, a classic flutist, once dreamed of looking for music in college: the astronaut was simply not a job title that women had. Back then, he would never have dreamed of playing his beloved flute thousands of kilometers from Earth.

However, there she was, flute in hand to become the first Latina in space.

During that nine-day mission, she and her crewmates conducted studies to better understand the effect of solar activity on Earth's climate and environment. She also handled a robotic arm that captured and displayed a satellite that studied the outermost part of the Sun's atmosphere.

Over the next decade, Ochoa flew three more shuttle missions, each as memorable as the first. During her third mission in 1999, she participated in the first coupling to the space station, where she and the rest of her crew delivered logistics and supplies for the first humans to live in the station. By the end of its 2002 flight, it had logged almost 1,000 hours in orbit.

"I loved the opportunity to be in space, but for me it was not just about being in space," he said. "It was about being part of a team, it was about having an objective, scientific discovery, learning what humans can do in space, providing value to the country," he said. "The really rewarding part was why I'm here, with whom I'm sharing this."

Ochoa stopped flying after that, but stayed inside the agency, moving to different roles in the field. She worked in the astronaut office where the staff supervises everything related to the training and operations of the astronauts. She also worked on the floor of the mission control room and was the director of Flight Crew Operations.

Saunders started working with the veteran astronaut when he was flight operations operations director, which meant that he was not only responsible for all the astronauts, but for all the aircraft and flight operations outside of Ellington Field. Ellington Field is the heart of Johnson's flight operations where astronauts are trained for space flights. It is also the basis for NASA's air transport and high-altitude aircraft cargo.

Ochoa "is smart, always well prepared, calm and has the ability to get right to the heart of the problem," Saunders said. "She can see solutions that other people eventually achieve but do not see so quickly, and she can identify the core problem and begin to find approaches to solve it."

Without guidelines, Coats enumerates exactly the same attributes when describing why he chose Ochoa as his deputy director in 2007.

"I was very, very impressed again not only because of his technical skills, which are exceptional, but also for their management skills, "said Coats. "She never loses her balance, I never heard her raise her voice or get angry … that's the person you want in a decision-making position."

But Ochoa was reluctant to get to the top, recalls Coats.

When Coats said he wanted Ochoa for the deputy position, Ochoa looked at me "with a look that could kill" – he loved his current job.

Coats tried again with a different approach.

"I said:" I'm not asking, I'm telling you that you're going to be. Congratulations, "he said. "And she just nodded and accepted what she considered a demotion, I think, but she did a fantastic job."

Coats retired from his position as director of the center in December 2012. And when then-NASA administrator Charles Bolden asked who would have replaced him with coats, the answer was obvious.

"I told Ellen Ochoa and he smiled and said, 'I think you'd say that,'" Coats said. "I think she has done an excellent job over the past five years, I hate to see her go, I'm proud of her."

Leader & # 39; very accessible & # 39;

The observation room over the mission control was not stopped in March when Ochoa went to the front, several televisions playing live video of the impending launch to the International Space Station.

The family and friends of the two American astronauts who were tying the spacecraft on their way to the space station were talking excitedly, the murmur of their voices rising in a collective scream.

But when Ochoa reached the front of the room, the mission pin showed prominently on his lapel, the crowd immediately calmed down. This was the woman responsible for keeping her children safe.

Ochoa made everyone understand the importance of what their loved ones did: how their work on the space station will help future astronauts get to Mars and how hard Johnson's staff has worked to make sure that both astronauts and the space station are safe.

While talking, she knew what they were feeling: both she and her family had been through this before.

"We are monitoring the station and crew systems day after day," Ochoa told the group. "We also work with engineers, doctors, astronauts and cosmonauts to make everything work, to train people to prepare for the flight and to make the flight."

It is this constant compassion and attention to detail that makes Ochoa one of the best center directors that Herb Baker, who retired last year from NASA, have worked in his 42 years with the agency.

"I just think about her world," Baker said. "She is very accessible and very intelligent, there are no surprises there, and she cared deeply about the people who worked there."

Ochoa assumed the position of director of the center in Johnson during a moment of uncertainty for the space agency. Three years earlier, in 2010, President Barack Obama ended the NASA Constellation Program, a creation of the George W. Bush government to send astronauts to the moon as a springboard for Mars. In saying that the program was too expensive and inefficient, the Obama administration sought to take astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and then to Mars by 2030.

Even so, Ochoa led NASA's human space flight center with aplomb and ambition. He made sure that the flights to the space station went smoothly and that the astronauts were ready for space. He also oversaw all of Johnson's research and development, including working on the Orion spacecraft built to take humans to Mars.

But since President Donald Trump took office, there has been a shift toward Bush's initial vision of going to the moon after Mars. Trump's proposed $ 19.9 billion budget for next fiscal year obligates NASA to launch an Orion flight unscrewed for 2021, followed by a launch of Americans around the moon in 2023.

It also asks NASA to build a $ 2.7 billion lunar orbital platform Gateway, which would basically act like a mini space station that orbits the moon, by 2023. Once built, crews could live and work there for 30 to 60 days at a time and could also act as a stop for astronauts who travel deeper into space for Mars, by example.

The budget must be approved by Congress.

"For me, I am very excited," said Ochoa about the future of NASA. "There is more focus on working to reach the moon than in the previous administration."

Therefore, it is not an ideal time to leave NASA, but there never will be, said Ochoa.

Ochoa and her husband have already bought a house in the heart of Boise, an idyllic city surrounded by hills and sometimes snow.

"We knew that at some point we just wanted a place where we could do a lot of walking, and there had to be other things, like having a university, easy access to an airport and we decided that Boise was a good place to do it," He said.

They made sure their new home was within walking distance of almost everything, including Boise State University, she said. Although he has not yet organized any teaching activities, he keeps his options open for the future.

For now, he will continue to serve on several boards of directors, including the National Board of Science, and will continue his many debates. commitments on women and minorities in STEM and leadership.

"I'm interested in being able to do a variety of different things [that] that come up intellectually interesting, I do interesting things and I talk about my passions," he said. . "I really want to be able to do that instead of a full-time job"

But she said she plans to control all the projects that happen at NASA.

"I already told them to make sure that they invite me to go back to all the releases," said Ochoa.

alex.stuckey@chron.com

twitter.com/alexdstuckey


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