Exploring Space, Unearthing Human Emotions Tell Me More's series "Flying High: First In Their Class" reflects on some of the famous firsts that the space shuttle program produced. In this third installment, host Michel Martin speaks with Ellen Ochoa, whose accomplishments as the first Latina astronaut have inspired Hispanic youth to explore science in school.
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Exploring Space, Unearthing Human Emotions

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Exploring Space, Unearthing Human Emotions

Exploring Space, Unearthing Human Emotions

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now, to the latest installment in our series, Flying High: The First In Their Class. We're commemorating the U.S. space shuttle program. We've been taking a look at some pioneers from past space missions. We've had the opportunity to speak with the first African-American to walk in space, the first Muslim on a U.S. shuttle mission. He's also a Saudi prince, making him the first member of royalty to go into space.

Today, we speak with the first Latina to travel to space. Ellen Ochoa took four trips on space shuttles between 1993 and 2002.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Three, two, one. We have ignition. We have lift-off of Discovery on the second mission of planet Earth's research flight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have reached the position and lift-off of the space shuttle Atlantis, setting in place the keystone to the space station's backbone.

MARTIN: But if you're feeling a little self-esteem challenged today, you might want to skip this one because Ellen Ochoa is also an accomplished classical musician. She's a private pilot and wife and mother of two. And she's deputy director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, home to NASA's famed Mission Control Center and she's with us on the line from there now. Welcome to the program, Ellen Ochoa. Thanks so much for joining us.

ELLEN OCHOA: Thank you, Michel. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Did you get a frequent flyer card for all those trips?

OCHOA: I wish.

MARTIN: Do they actually give you those? Why did you want to become an astronaut? As I recall, you and I are close contemporaries. When we were growing up, women weren't allowed to become astronauts.

OCHOA: That's right. But it did finally change when I was in college, actually, is when they picked the first class of shuttle astronauts. And that was really a milestone because of the diversity of that class. It was the first class that had women and minority astronauts. And it really made an impression on me that this was a career that was now open to women.

MARTIN: What was it that attracted you?

OCHOA: Well, at that time, I wasn't really thinking of the astronaut career. But after I got my degree in physics, I went on to graduate school and I was interested in doing research. So I started pursuing my PhD and the shuttle flew for the first time and they started using it as a place to do research in space. And a lot of the graduate students at Stanford, where I was, was talking about the shuttle program and astronauts and using that new spaceship to do research that you couldn't do anywhere else.

And I thought, wow. You know, here's a career where you could marry up doing research, really groundbreaking research, and bring in the excitement of exploring and going into space.

MARTIN: I mentioned that you became the first Hispanic woman to fly into space. You were born in the U.S., obviously, but you're of Mexican heritage. And was that a big deal at the time or did that come later?

OCHOA: Yes, my father's family is from Mexico and it wasn't something I was thinking about, you know, being a first or anything, when I applied. To me, it was just an exciting wonderful career, a way to participate in exploration and discovery. But certainly, shortly after I was selected, I realized that there was a whole dimension to that that I hadn't thought about and that was the opportunity to talk about exploration and science and engineering and education to a whole group.

And there were so many Hispanic Americans who were excited about that. I started receiving letters immediately and, you know, over the last 20 years, have received thousands and thousands of letters, lots from schoolchildren, about their interest in space after having read about me.

MARTIN: How do you feel about that? Because there are some people - we, obviously, on this program have the opportunity to interview a lot of people who are accomplished in their fields and some people feel differently about that whole aspect being highlighted. I mean, obviously, you were selected because of your technical expertise and what you would bring to the mission. And, you know, we've spoken to some people who really would rather that aspect of their lives not be discussed, but other people feel very strongly that it's important to highlight that issue because it opens the opportunities for other people to think more expansively about what they can do.

Did you ever wish that there wasn't that kind of attention to your identity or do you not feel that way?

OCHOA: Well, I think one of NASA's greatest legacies has always been the inspiration that it's provided to people not only in the United States, but actually around the world because of what NASA tries to do. I mean, it picks huge challenges, things that people aren't even sure can't be done and it goes after them. And so the way I've seen it is, if there's any way that I can help embody that inspiration, then that can only be to the good.

I'll just tell you a little story. A few years ago, I was back at Stanford talking to a group of students there about my career and about the importance of education. And afterwards, one of the students in the audience came up to me and she was a young Hispanic woman. She told me she was a junior in mechanical engineering. And she said, I was so excited when I heard you were going to come talk because I actually met you when I was in second grade. You came to my school. And she told me the year and approximately where it was.

It was in Los Angeles and it turned out to be an appearance that I made after my very first flight in space. I was invited by a few members of Congress who represented heavily-Hispanic districts from Los Angeles and they had me come and speak at a number of schools there. Well, she had been, you know, in one of the audiences in that school and from that day in second grade, you know, she had my picture up on her wall and she thought about growing up and studying science and engineering.

And here she was, this very poised young woman now, a junior majoring in engineering at Stanford University. So to me, if that's the kind of impact that NASA can have and I can sort of personify that, you know, that's a wonderful, wonderful legacy.

MARTIN: Now, I know you're a scientist, but doesn't that just make you want to cry? You just want to cry.

OCHOA: Yeah. I'll tell you, being involved in human space flight, it is an emotional endeavor. I think it brings in the highest highs and the lowest lows. There's no question about it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with astronaut Ellen Ochoa. She was the first Latina on the U.S. space shuttle mission. She actually was on four missions and she's currently deputy director of Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. So as I think everybody knows, the final space shuttle mission Atlantis is underway. How do you feel about that? Are you sad that it's the final mission?

OCHOA: It's certainly a poignant moment in our history and for all of us here at NASA. So to see it end, it's definitely poignant. But we're looking forward. That's what we want to do here at Johnson Space Center. I think what we have always brought to NASA and brought to the country is trying to push the boundaries, trying to go to the next level. And so we're going to be focusing on the International Space Station and trying to enhance the capabilities that we have on it, in terms of doing scientific research and also using it as an engineering test bed and looking at how we can test out ideas that we might use as we move beyond low Earth orbit.

We're also developing a new spacecraft that will be used to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. So we're excited about that.

MARTIN: Well, are you worried, though, that we, as a country, are losing our appetite for space exploration, that the public is not as engaged as it was?

OCHOA: Well, with so many space shuttle missions that we've done, I think it's just sort of natural that each one hasn't necessarily gotten the attention that the early ones did. Of course, now that we're end, we're seeing a lot of attention on it. What I think is maybe harder to portray is just how much we have learned over the last 20, 30 years of flying the space shuttle and how that's going to help us continue to explore and continue to expand the frontiers.

When I joined the astronaut program in 1990, the kind of missions that we were flying at that time, compared to the missions that we fly now, there's just no comparison in the complexity in what we're actually able to do when we're in space, whether it has to do with research or assembling things, what we can do outside with spacewalks, what we can do with robotics, how we're connecting with people, you know, it's just evolved so much.

And what I really want to do is see that continue, see us be able to expand our capabilities through the International Space Station and then really look forward to the future. We are involved in technology development for, you know, missions that we hope to plan that would take us to an asteroid and eventually to Mars. We've got some really exciting programs going on where we're looking at human robotic assistance. You may have heard of Robonaut 2, where we're looking at habitation modules, deep space transports, closed loop life support systems.

So there's a lot going on. What I hope is before too long there will be an actual program that you can name where we can help involve the public more in what we're doing.

MARTIN: Ellen Ochoa is a veteran of four space flights. She's logged over 978 hours in space. She's now deputy director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and she joined us from there. Ellen Ochoa, thank you so much for joining us.

OCHOA: Thank you very much, Michel. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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