Passport to Leadership and Other Places Out of This World

Fly NASA Guest Blogger: JSC Deputy Center Director Ellen Ochoa 



Everything I dreamed about during the years I pursued an astronaut career came to pass, and the experiences were even more amazing than I pictured.

Training is both individually challenging and the ultimate in

developing teamwork; actually launching into space is unbelievable; learning how to work efficiently and effectively in microgravity is exciting and humbling; seeing the Earth from space is startlingly beautiful and emotional; and accomplishing your mission is the most rewarding feeling possible. 


However, I thought I’d mention some of the other experiences I’ve had as a result of being an astronaut, most that I never imagined when I first thought about applying.

As a Capcom, the astronaut who works in Mission Control  supporting the Flight Director by communicating with crews, the many training
simulations I worked that dealt with lots of malfunctions helped prepare me for some real-life mission problems.  During STS-83, a failed fuel cell broughtEllen Ochoa as Capcom the mission to an early close and we stayed busy coming up with and communicating to the crew an entry plan to account for possible subsequent failures.  STS-100’s mission was affected by problems with all of the U.S. command and control computers on the International Space Station (ISS)  — a failure we hadn’t trained for since it was deemed “non-credible” – and hard work by the ground and crew over several days restored the computers and allowed the STS-100 crew to successfully complete its mission of installing the station robotic arm.


In the mid-90s, I served as the astronaut leading the crew office support of ISS, not long after a re-design of our space station plans made Russia our prime partner.  In that role, I negotiated with Russian training and operations personnel on how we were going to train for and operate the new ISS during various phases of assembly – what level of systems training, where the training would take place, what language would be used, both during training and onboard, and how astronauts and cosmonauts would work together in orbit.  While common now, it was quite an unusual experience then to tour the Russian mission control center, Star City where all cosmonauts have been trained and, a few years later while training for STS-96, to visit the launch site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, from where both Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin were launched.


After four amazing Space Shuttle missions, I had the opportunity to become Deputy, and later Director of Flight Crew Operations, the organization that manages the astronaut office and aircraft operations at Johnson Space Center.  That put me in mission control on the tragic day of Columbia’s entry and as one of the managers representing the crew during the subsequent effort to return the shuttle to flight.  I’ve had the responsibility to give a GO or NO GO for the crew during flight readiness reviews and launch countdowns many times since, an action that always has me reviewing lessons learned in acceptance of risk.  The entire Shuttle and ISS team have together accomplished an incredible feat since then – the assembly of the ISS, and continuous habitation by crews for over 11 years.  During that time, I got more international experience, leading discussions among the heads of the crew offices of Russian, European, Japanese,  and Canadian space agencies to work out crew assignments and address other crew issues, and representing our crews during final preparations for launch in Kazakhstan with the opportunity to compare pre-launch activities and rituals between our countries.

Today, as Deputy Center Director, I work not only with operations and engineering personnel, but also with all the other professionals who make our space program work, including those in finance, procurement, information technology and human resources to name a few.  I also get to interact with leaders across the agency, and community and political leaders who both support NASA and task us to improve our performance and our relevance. 


While the technology that NASA has developed or refined that is now used throughout many industries is our concrete contribution to society, I believe that it is the inspiration that comes from what  NASA accomplishes with challenging missions that is our greatest legacy.


Perhaps some of the following personal examples, from my twenty-plus years of giving hundreds of presentations and receiving thousands of letters from all over the world will illustrate that:


n  An 8-year-old boy taking my hand and refusing to let go for an hour after I spoke at a library, and his mom telling me he couldn’t sleep for the previous couple of nights because he was so excited about seeing an astronaut;

n  A female student majoring in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford telling me she saw me speak at her school when she was in 2nd grade, and from that time forward, she was determined to become an engineer;

n  A 5th grade student running up to me and telling me proudly that his name was Ochoa too, and he wanted to accomplish something amazing in his life like me;

n  A profile of me written by a group of Latina teenagers in a suicide prevention initiative and being told these girls believe in themselves and their abilities more after learning about me and other role models;

n  Two public schools named after me, both in areas with largely Hispanic populations, and seeing first-hand how the theme of space exploration is translated into enthusiasm about learning in every subject;

n  Many letters including pictures of girls dressed as an astronaut, giving a report for their school’s Living Museum or Books Alive project;

n  Letter from a 6th grader: “I’m not very good at math, but now I know to be an NASA employee you must be good at math, so I’ll be hitting those books!”

n  Letter from a 9th grader:  “When I hear about your life, that makes me change my opinion about coming to school because I used to tell my mom that I didn’t want to go to school but now I know that coming to school is part of getting a good job like you.  I respect you and love you.”

n  Letter from a first grader : “I am a lot like you.  I am haf Mexican.  I am a girl.  And I want to go to space.  I am six and a haf.  I have wanted to be an astronaut for six years.  I think.”

n  And finally, a letter from a woman who wrote how thrilled she was to see STS-66 launch:  “I am 80 years old and never saw anything like it.  The last time I was thrilled was when [I saw] Charles A. Lindberg landed at the Air Post in St. Louis.” 


All of these experiences demonstrate what it means to represent NASA and what being an astronaut is really all about – not just the opportunity to fly in space — but a career encompassing operational, international, and leadership experiences, with the goal of helping our country, and indeed people all over the world, reach for the stars.


4 thoughts on “Passport to Leadership and Other Places Out of This World”

  1. It is so amazing and outstanding that a fellow human can experience life out side the box. As you know the inside of the box has it’s ups and downs–its rules. Outside the box you become the least of importance. Not to be noticed. Questions no ones asks–due to severe brain washing. It is lonely and firesome to stand alone and say NO–there is so much more–different deminsions–outside way outside the multitude of boxes. And then the stamina to just BE.

  2. I always wanted to be an astronaut thanks to Clark, Assimov, Heinlen and their ilk. Now I’m growing old and scientists can’t disclose the best stuff! Our space program pretends toe on a search for life! Like silly aliens looking under cow pies for cows! Non-disclosure and obscure logic kills goodwill and erodes the credibility of associates. I’m saying that your (wonderful) efforts are definately diminished by association if you knowingly participate in a fraud against humanity without an action by you to mitigate or avoid public damages. Hope is the last sight of shore as the shark lifts you high.

  3. Dear Ellen thank you for your pursuit of excellence!…These are stories I wish would have gotten out more in years gone by to have done for even more young men & women what it has done for you…I am 58 years old & always held that dream that seemed virtually impossible as a Canadian as one who did not know the potential of what could be accomplished…So I urge you with all the passion you have to get out motivate challenge a generation that has become sad & disappointed in the future even worse not holding hope for themselves…This more then anything is painful to watch as it feeds the frustration & sense of no where to go…Nothing to do…

    NASA is a highlight that I hope will be there for many more who catch the vision & are willing to run after the prize….

    Bless you HAPPY NEW YEAR 2012…
    Respectfully Thomas Tyrrell

  4. Dear Ellen Ochoa,
    Thank you so much for sharing your drive, inspiration and expertise. I am an educator and have applied to be an astronaut candidate for the class of 2013. I hope to inspire all my students to pursue their dreams and “dream big”. I thank you for your commitment to children and their future and all of your hard work.

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