Dr Ellen Ochoa is deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center
The astronaut’s four space flights showed her the value of teamwork. “What I learned then applies very much to what I do today,” she says
The 978 hours Dr Ellen Ochoa spent on space shuttle missions changed her approach to science and management. She used to place the highest value on solo research, but now she’s a strong advocate of teamwork.
Last November, this veteran of four space flights was appointed deputy director of NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC, Houston, TX). The center is responsible for all human space flights, the shuttle program, the International Space Station program and the new Constellation program.
Ochoa, along with JSC director Mike Coats, oversees the entire center. She handles day-to-day budget and personnel issues. Because JSC is the “technical authority” for NASA, she’s also the voice for various institutional organizations.
Committed to flight
“I really like what we do,” Ochoa says. “I am committed to space flight, human exploration, learning how to do more and more. I like the fact that it is much bigger than myself, important to my country and to the world. I like being able to contribute in this way.”
The last time she was in outer space was 2002 and she’s not likely to return, she says. A lot of astronauts choose to stay with NASA in various management roles. Others go to work for aerospace contractors and some go into education, Ochoa notes. “You see everything in between. It’s a very individual decision.”
Four trips in space
Ochoa’s four space flights took place in 1993, 1994, 1999 and 2002. On the first flight, the crew conducted atmospheric and solar studies to see the effect of solar activity on the earth’s climate and environment. Ochoa used the robotic arm of the remote manipulator system (RMS) to deploy and recapture the Spartan satellite which studied the solar corona.
Her second time in space, the crew again studied how changes in the sun’s irradiance affect the earth’s climate and environment. Ochoa used the RMS to retrieve an atmospheric research satellite at the end of its eight-day free flight.
The third flight was the first-ever docking to the International Space Station. The crew delivered four tons of supplies in preparation for the first crew that would live on the station. Ochoa coordinated the supply transfer and operated the RMS during the eight-hour space walk.
Her last journey was the thirteenth Space Shuttle mission to visit the space station. Ochoa operated the station’s robotic arm to move crew members during three of four spacewalks.
A special experience
“Being in space is a unique experience,” Ochoa says. “You’re able to move much more freely, handle heavy equipment easily. But it’s more difficult to do other types of work.”
For example, “You have to be very careful not to lose any tools. You can’t just put something down; in the low gravity it will fly away. It’s a very special experience.”
During the nine-year span of her space missions, Ochoa saw many changes in technology aboard the shuttle. The major change was an avionics upgrade, she says. “We went essentially to a glass cockpit configuration.” But the look and feel of the displays did not change dramatically. “That will come on the next vehicle,” she says.
The other major change was the increased use of laptop computers on board. They were used to assist in the rendezvous with the space station, interfacing with experiments, transferring equipment and handling robotics.
The whole interface with the space station is through laptop computers now, Ochoa says. “Instead of switches on consoles, you are sending commands on a laptop. That is a major evolution.”
Ochoa grew up in California and considers La Mesa her hometown. She studied the flute growing up and thought she might major in music in college. But she noticed that her calculus classmates were majoring in science and engineering, and just for fun she tried a physics class. It was the turning point in her young life. She graduated from San Diego State University (San Diego, CA) in 1980 with a BS in physics.
In school she enjoyed several science-related summer jobs. The first was at a biochemistry lab sponsored by the American Heart Association. After two summer internships at Los Alamos National Lab (Los Alamos, NM) she decided to go on to grad school. The shuttle had just started flying then, she notes. At Stanford University she completed an MSEE in 1981 and a PhD in EE in 1985.
Working to be an astronaut
She was fascinated by the space program and applied to become an astronaut. While she waited for the answer she also applied to eight labs around the country.
Her first job was as a researcher with the Livermore, CA location of Sandia National Laboratories. She worked in optical processing, her PhD research area.
While working at Sandia she prepared to compete for the space program. She met several astronauts during an interview at Johnson Space Center, and they told her what she needed to do. “It was clear that I needed experience in aviation operational settings, making decisions, learning about navigation, all translatable to what they were doing on the shuttle,” she says. She also took flying lessons.
She applied in 1985, and was interviewed in 1987 and 1990. “I was one of thousands of applicants,” she says. “How realistic was it to expect something to come of it? But when I finally got asked to an interview I thought I did well in it. Maybe I did have a shot at this!”
The time at Ames
Between 1988 and 1990 Ochoa worked for NASA’s Ames Research Center (Moffett Field, CA) as chief of the intelligent systems technology branch. She supervised thirty-five engineers and scientists doing R&D in computational systems for aerospace missions.
“I was enthusiastic about the job! I thought, ‘Even if I don’t become an astronaut I would like to work for NASA.’”
Flight crew ops director
In 2002, following her shuttle career, Ochoa transitioned into management at NASA as flight crew ops deputy director at Johnson Space Center. She had to expand her knowledge into aircraft operations, the other half of the directorate’s mission. Last year NASA asked her to take over her current position.
“I had a lot of catching up to do. From being a crew member, I now needed to understand budget and policy setting and personnel and everything that comes with management in an organization,” Ochoa says.
Since first joining NASA, Ochoa has greatly enjoyed her personal evolution. “I had the opportunity to participate in research on the first two flights. Then I moved from a research environment to an operational one.
“The experience of being on a crew that was working with a team on the ground showed me the value of teamwork. What I learned then applies very much to what I do today, how to manage and how to get the most from everyone on the team.”
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