When Ellen Ochoa took a Ph.D. entrance exam at Stanford University, she heard about a male testing professor who had never passed a woman — and never planned to.
“It was easy for him just to mark down really low scores because there was no record of what happened during the (oral) exam,” Ochoa told La Mesa middle-schoolers Thursday as she explained obstacles she faced in education.
It was a “terrible process,” she said.
Fortunately, that professor didn’t determine her future.
Ochoa spoke to about 40 students at Parkway Sports & Health Science Academy, her alma mater when it was called Parkway Middle School, where a mural in her honor was dedicated Thursday.
The first Latina astronaut shared how Parkway gave her some keys to success: learning teamwork playing in the school’s band, being studious in her classes, and never losing her desire to learn something new.
Math and music were constants in her education and career. She played flute on her first space shuttle mission in April 1993.
Seventh-grader Selena Sandoval spoke at the dedication of the artwork by Jorge Rosales: “As I pass this mural, it motivates me to work. Dr. Ellen Ochoa has inspired me because she’s a Latina astronaut and she chased her dreams at Parkway Academy.
“We grew up in the same area, went to the same school and were raised in the same culture. We are both females and interested in science. So I know if she could do it, I could do it.”
Sandoval hopes to become a therapist or a criminal lawyer.
Ochoa told the crowd of students and administrators (and a livestream to other classes):
“I’m pretty sure that having this dedication on Star Wars Day is just a coincidence, but I can tell you that the summer before I started at Parkway was a big space year — it was the summer that the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon. So it was a really exciting time for space and for science.”
She couldn’t have imagined the career ahead of her, she said, “but I was really lucky to have dedicated teachers here at Parkway who gave me a good start.”
Parkway teachers expected a lot and expected hard work, she added.
“I had a sense through my parents that paying attention and really working hard at it was going to pay off in the future,” said the veteran of four shuttle missions.
After the presentation, which included performances by the school’s choir and band, students had an abundance of questions for the woman who once sat in their seats.
Were you excited to be the first Latina in space? What did the Earth look like from space? What happens to water when it spills in space? Do you believe in the multiverse? What was the most difficult part about training? What were you most afraid of?
Her career has been distinguished.
Ochoa was the 11th director of the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, its first Hispanic director, and its second female director.
She joined NASA in 1988 and did research at Ames Research Center. At the Space Center, she was chosen to be an astronaut in 1990. Ochoa served on the nine-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. She logged nearly 1,000 hours in orbit.
Ochoa received the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for senior executives in the federal government. At least six schools are named for her.
Born in Los Angeles, she locally attended La Mesa’s Northmont Elementary School, Parkway and Grossmont High School before studying at San Diego State University — where she’ll appear Friday.
In May 1999, Ochoa was a member of the Discovery STS-96 crew that executed the first docking to the International Space Station.
Ochoa retired from the Johnson Space Center in 2018 to become vice chair of the National Science Board, which runs the National Science Foundation. She became NSB chair in 2020.
On Friday morning, during a building dedication event, San Diego State University’s West Commons will be renamed the Ellen Ochoa Pavilion. The renaming is in honor of Ochoa’s achievements and contributions to space exploration and her commitment to the scientific education of young people.
The renaming is part of the university’s goal to increase representation for diverse communities across campus. Last month, SDSU held a separate building dedication event and renamed East Commons, the Charles B. Bell Jr. Pavilion. Bell, one of SDSU’s first African American professors, taught at SDSU for nearly 20 years.
At Parkway, standing in the library next to student artwork of a space mission, Ochoa spoke of her early career choices.
She majored in physics. The thought of being an astronaut didn’t enter her mind until she was in graduate school.
“When I was growing up, you know, I didn’t really know … astronauts, scientists and engineers, who were women, much less of Hispanic heritage,” said Ochoa, who turns 65 next week.
Then came Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space. Ride flew when Ochoa was halfway through her Ph.D. program at Stanford.
“That was the first time women were actually allowed to be astronauts, or it was the first time astronauts of color were selected,” Ochoa said. “So until I was halfway through my undergrad, it wasn’t even a career that was open to me, which is probably one reason I wasn’t really thinking about it earlier. It just didn’t seem possible.”
She realized two things she had in common with Ride: Both were physics majors, and both attended Stanford University. Ochoa also was fortunate to meet other female astronauts who followed Ride in space travel.
Did Ochoa feel she had to work harder than men because she is a Latina?
“I do think there’s problem when you are underrepresented in a field [where] you don’t get the benefit of the doubt,” she said, “and I saw this over and over again where, you know, there were men in the same classes that I was taking, and it was just kind of assumed either that they do well or that they should be there.”
“Whereas I did feel like I had to prove that I could be there,” Ochoa added.
She told students that when she inquired about studying electrical engineering, a professor in that area “clearly was not interested in having me in his department. He’s like, ‘Well, we had a woman come through here once but you know, it’s a pretty difficult course of study, and I don’t think you’d be interested.’
“So he really had never seen someone like me in his department, and did not have an open mind about that.”
Thus it’s important what teachers say to students, she said.
“Certainly it was in my case,” she said. Ochoa was accepted into the physics department.
Once she was selected as an astronaut, Ochoa didn’t feel she was treated differently because of her gender. Other astronauts just want to make sure you’re going to be a good crew member, that you know your stuff, and that you’re going to help the rest of the crew carry out the objectives of the mission, she said.
She answered more questions.
Did she like space travel? “I actually loved pretty much everything about being an astronaut,” she said, especially the teamwork and problem-solving in groups.
What does Earth look like from space? “Oh, it’s so amazing, she said. “It is a really beautiful sight. It’s really vivid. You know, it’s hard to portray just in photographs.”
What does weightlessness feel like? She likened it to scuba diving, but divers still feel gravity. “In most ways, it is really fun,” she said — with astronauts being able to move very heavy equipment that couldn’t be done on Earth.
Had she seen the aurora borealis from space? “It’s the most science-fiction thing that you see from space… It was really spectacular,” she said. Astronauts could hear static on the radio from the phenomenon.
What did she enjoy seeing from space? Beside the Northern Lights, she enjoyed California and specifically San Diego from on high, “including the San Diego Harbor, which is pretty recognizable from space,” she said.
What was she most afraid of? While acknowledging the risks of space travel, especially the launch, missing the flight was what she most feared. “I was most afraid of being in a car accident between now and launch day,” Ochoa said, “because … it was something I dreamed about for many years.”
“We’d been in training for this particular flight for about a year, and I’d had a couple of years of training in the astronaut corps before that. So at that point, you just really want to put all that training to use right — you want that actual chance to go into space,” she added.
While factors existed beyond her control — and astronauts were trained to deal with the unplanned — “you just focus on what you can do.”
Did she ever do a spacewalk? No, the spacewalk suit didn’t fit her, but she enjoyed manipulating the robot space arm on the shuttle.
Is there a multiverse? Neither math nor science has proved or disproved it yet, she said.
Who were her role models? Beside Ride, she credits her mother for setting a good example as a college student. “She was always excited about what she was learning. And that was certainly something that I think made a big impression on me,” Ochoa said.
And she gave a lesson in not giving up.
After she wasn’t chosen to be an astronaut after her first interview, she earned her pilots license and joined one of NASA’s research centers to make her a more desirable candidate.
Is there anything she misses about being an astronaut? “Well, floating was fun. I haven’t done that in 20 years.”
After hearing Ochoa answer questions, seventh-grader Isabella Ceja said, “It’s an honor to know that I’m supported as a Latina. There are not many women in history with Latina heritage that have made it so far and in such a high place, and I believe that maybe some day I could be a role model to somebody.”
Before introducing Ochoa, Parkway Academy Principal Jacob Ruth said he hoped the mural, which was completed last year, will tell students: “You can be anything that you want to be, that you can come from the community of La Mesa and you can persevere and learn and succeed and do amazing things in your life.”
Speaking of her likeness on a wall in the middle of the school, Ochoa said: “I hope that this new mural inspires Parkway students to explore all subjects to dream big, to set big goals — in short to reach for the stars.”