If there’s no career exciting enough for you here on Earth, then shoot for the stars…literally. Space is less of a mystery these days, thanks in no small part to the courageous men and women who travel to the outer stretches of our universe. NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to fly on a mission to space, loves being a part of something much bigger than herself—humankind’s endeavor to journey throughout our vast universe and understand what it’s like to live in space. When Ochoa performs science and technology experiments on the space missions of today, she also sets the stage for the explorations of tomorrow. You could be the future of space exploration.
How did you become an astronaut?
Having grown up during the Apollo era, I avidly followed flights to the Moon along with everyone else. However, women weren’t accepted into the astronaut corps until I was halfway through college, so I hadn’t considered it as a career when I was young. The first Shuttle flight lifted off when I was a graduate student at Stanford University, and a couple of years later NASA was accepting applications for another astronaut class. I was doing research at the time, so I was especially intrigued with the idea of doing research in the unique space environment, along with the thrill of space flight. I was very excited to learn that I would be eligible to apply as soon as I finished my doctorate, and that is exactly what I did.
I’m fortunate to carry out a very exciting, visible role, which has included running experiments in space, operating robot arms to deploy satellites, installing modules onto the International Space Station, and assisting the Commander and Pilot in launch, rendezvous, and landing procedures. But I don’t work alone; I’m part of a team that includes not only the crew but also the entire team of people who make a mission successful. Everyone works very hard to do their part in planning, designing, and executing a mission, and each person’s job is important.
Describe what you do.
One aspect of my job that I really enjoy is the variety. When I’m training for a flight, I spend a lot of time in simulators planning, rehearsing, and problem-solving for all phases of a mission. For example, we use a motion-based simulator to practice launches and landings, robotic simulators (both computer-based and hardware-based, including one underwater) to practice the tasks involving robot arms, and experimental hardware or software to learn about scientific procedures. One day I could fly in a high-performance jet to Florida to train with some hardware there and gain crew coordination experience. Another day I could scuba dive in our big training pool to learn about the tasks being performed by the spacewalking crewmembers on my flight.
When not in training, I’ve held many interesting positions that support the Shuttle and Station programs. I’ve helped develop updated robotic procedures, tested out flight software, worked in Mission Control as the liaison between the on-orbit crew and the control team, and led the Astronaut Office support to the Space Station Program, which included negotiations with members of the Russian Space Agency. I’m currently in a management position as deputy director of the organization that includes the Astronaut Office and aircraft operations that support astronaut training. My boss and I represent the crew at major technical and mission meetings as well as manage the policy, budget, and personnel for our organization.
How should interested students prepare for this career?
Astronauts must have a college degree in a technical field—some area of science, engineering, math, or medicine. Most astronauts have at least a master’s degree, and many mission specialists, like me, have either a doctorate or medical degree. My bachelor’s degree is in physics, and my master’s and doctorate degrees are in electrical engineering with a specialization in optical information processing.
My science education has enabled me to learn every necessary detail of the Shuttle systems. I need to understand how the propulsion, electrical power, mechanical, life support, flight control, and communications systems all work—well enough to diagnose, troubleshoot, and recover from problems. We have support from all the folks on the ground, but we must always be prepared for a situation in which communications with the ground team are lost. The specific research that I did in optics, prior to becoming an astronaut, came in most handy on my first two flights. We carried out a number of experiments that studied the ozone hole and the effect of the Sun’s radiation on the creation and destruction of ozone—many of these were optics-based experiments that I needed to understand as well as describe to the general public before, during, and after my flight.
Students can check out NASA’s website about astronauts at http://astronauts.nasa.gov and also read astronauts’ first-hand experiences at www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/about/people/astronotes.html.
An experience that stands out to you?
It’s hard to pick just one experience because I’ve had so many amazing ones since joining the astronaut corps. All four of my spaceflights have been unforgettable. I vividly recall seeing Earth for the first time, trying to get used to moving around and working in zero gravity (it takes both less physical effort and more mental concentration than one might think), and the thrill of working with my crew to accomplish a difficult task, such as installing a 12 m truss structure onto the International Space Station.
I have a lingering memory from my last flight. The Sun set shortly after we undocked from the Space Station and as we moved away we could see just a shadow of the Station, illuminated by the lights of the Shuttle. The limb of Earth was behind the Station, and as we neared the most southern part of our orbit, we witnessed the Southern lights. Ghostly green filaments stretched tens if not hundreds of kilometers into space in ever-changing patterns, with some red bursts of color at the tips. This beautiful, eerie sight mesmerized the crew. Suddenly it was sunrise, and the whole station turned a brilliant white and gold as if a cloaking device had just been removed. It was an incredible moment, not just because of what we saw but whom we saw it with. Working so closely with a team to accomplish a challenging, meaningful task is the greatest reward of being an astronaut.
—By Megan Sullivan