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Summary Article: Ochoa, Ellen
from American Women of Science since 1900

b. 1958

Electrical Engineer, Astronaut

Education: B.S., San Diego State University, 1980; M.S., Stanford University, 1981, Ph.D., electrical engineering, 1985

Professional Experience: researcher, Imaging Technology Division, Sandia National Laboratory, 1985–1988; Group Leader to Chief, Intelligent Systems Branch, Ames Research Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 1988–1990; astronaut, missions STS-56 (1993), STS-66 (1994), STS-96 (1999), and STS-110 (2002); deputy director, Flight Crew Operations, Johnson Space Center, 2002–2006; director, Flight Crew Operations, 2006–2007; deputy director, Johnson Space Center, 2007–

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa during test activities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, 2002.


Ellen Ochoa is an electrical engineer and astronaut specializing in optics and optical recognition in robotics. While working at Sandia National Laboratory, she developed a process that implements optics for image processing that is normally done by computer. For example, one method she devised removes noise from an image through an optical system rather than using a standard digital computer to do the work. She was chosen for the astronaut program in 1990. Her first flight was in 1993 on the orbiter Discovery mission STS-56, which carried the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science, known as Atlas-2. She deployed instruments in space to enable scientists to look at the sun's corona, and she operated the robotic arm to deploy and retrieve the Spartan 201 satellite. Her second mission in 1994 continued the Spacelab flight series to study the sun's energy during an 11-year solar cycle in order to learn how changes in the irradiance of the sun affect the Earth's environment and climate. For the 1999 Discovery mission, she was part of the team who made the first docking to the International Space Station. Her fourth flight was Atlantis in 2002, which again visited the International Space Station, and Ochoa was in charge of operating the robotic arm to move supplies and crewmembers.

While still a graduate student, Ochoa developed and patented a real-time optical inspection technique for defect detection, and she considers it her most important scientific achievement to date. She joined the technical staff in the Imaging Technology Division of Sandia after receiving her doctorate, and there her research centered on developing optical filters for noise removal and optical methods for distortion-invariant object recognition. She was co-author of two additional patents, one for an optical system for the nonlinear median filtering of images and another for a distortion invariant optical pattern recognition system. Since her flights as an astronaut, Ochoa has been a director of flight crew operations at NASA and, in 2007, was named Deputy Director of Johnson Space Center.

As the first female Hispanic astronaut, Ochoa quickly became a role model for young girls and Hispanics, and frequently speaks before school groups. She has received several awards, including the NASA Group Achievement Award for Photonics Technology (1991), NASA Space Flight Medal (1993), Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Engineering Achievement Award (1994), National Hispanic Quincentennial Commission Pride Award (1990), Hispanic magazine's Hispanic Achievement Science Award (1991), and Congressional Hispanic Caucus Medallion of Excellence Role Model Award (1993). She is a member of the Optical Society of America and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Further Resources
  • Kevles, Bettyann H. 2003. Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space. Basic Books New York.
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Ellen Ochoa (Ph.D.).”
  • Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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