Woman of the Week: Dr. Ellen Ochoa blazed a trail for women in science

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When she soared into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 1993, Dr. Ellen Ochoa launched an entire generation of young girls' dreams.

"When I was little, there were no women astronauts so nobody would ask you, 'Do you want to grow up and be an astronaut?' and it really never entered my mind," said Ochoa.

Space was not an immediate thought for Ochoa's future.

"I also liked music, I played flute starting in the 6th grade. That was a really important activity for me throughout high school and college," she added.

As she excelled in math and science, gravity pulled at her, especially when the first space shuttle mission took place when she was in graduate school at Stanford.

"At that point, I was studying to be a research engineer, so it seemed like the perfect marriage of interest in space and really being able to do exciting research," said Ochoa.

Twelve years later, she became the first Hispanic woman in space.

"What it really meant was when I got back from space, I had all kinds of opportunities to talk to audiences all around the country. A lot of them were schools that had high Hispanic populations. It was a chance to talk about, if you study hard, take education seriously and particularly if you study science, engineering and math fields, there's a lot of opportunities and no limit to what you can do," said Ochoa.

Today she's an inspiration to young women, especially those interested in STEM programs.

"Set goals for yourself, take it one step at a time. Any large, important goal can really be broken down into steps," Ochoa said when asked about her advice for the next generation.

Now the director of the Johnson Space Center, Ochoa balances work with marriage and motherhood.

"Kids aren't as impressed about that as you might think. I remember calling my son from space, he was not quite four," Ochoa recalled. "I said, 'What did you think of the launch?" He said, 'Mommy, I got to ride on an airplane.' He was talking about the plane that took him from Houston down to the Cape...That's just the way it goes."

Ochoa said there's nothing different about the way she balances her career with her family.

"I get great support from my husband. When my kids were little, we had a wonderful nanny and she helped us out a lot. My hours were kind of strange. Using the day care we have here, the hours didn't quite match up. Every day you take it as it comes."

As for her flute, Ochoa has played it in space and still plays today.

"I played a few minutes this morning. Someday when I have more time, maybe I'll be able to come back to it and have a chamber group," said Ochoa.

For now, she's focused on her mission at Johnson Space Center.

"Mars is really that horizon goal. We do want to send humans to Mars, absolutely," Ochoa said, adding that she thinks a human will set foot on Mars during her lifetime.

"I feel really fortunate to have had a career at NASA. NASA has the most fantastic brand, not only in our country but around the world. Anywhere I travel I usually have NASA things on, it might be a pin or a tag on my luggage or something. People will see it and start to ask me about it. They all have such incredible things to say about NASA about how it's inspired them, they have a family member who has worked at NASA," she said.

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