EXCLUSIVE: First female Hispanic astronaut reflects on Apollo 11

Posted at 2:00 PM, Jul 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-22 20:57:07-04

BOISE, Idaho — As the world pauses to remember man's first steps on the moon, one woman has a unique perspective on that life-changing event.

Dr. Ellen Ochoa made history as the first female Hispanic astronaut. She recently retired as the director of the Johnson Space Center, where she continued to push for the United States to return to the moon.

Michelle Edmonds sat down for an exclusive interview with Dr. Ochoa, who has now made Boise her home.

"In the summer of 1969, I was living in Southern California in a suburb of San Diego called La Mesa with my four brothers and sisters and my parents," Ochoa began. "We were in the living room, of course, watching what was going on... and pretty much like everyone else in the country we were following along. It was just sort of incredible, like hard to are they actually on the moon?"

"I will have to say at that time I never had a thought that was something I could do," Ochoa continued. "Partly, there were no women astronauts and, although there were women at NASA, there were not very many, so you generally didn't see them--and if you saw people from Nasa on TV you didn't see women."

"At some point you had to hear NASA calling you or 'earth to Ellen?' What was the spark that made you think about NASA and did you immediately think, 'I'm going to be an astronaut?'" Michelle asked.

"It was when I was at Stanford and the shuttle program flew for the first time at the end of my first year at Stanford and everyone was watching it. It was a new program. America had not flown in space for a few years when that mission went off. So there was a lot of attention to it," Ochoa said. "Also before that--a few years before--the first women had been selected as astronauts in 1978."

"Was it an easy path for you to join NASA?" Michelle asked.

"Well, literally, when I put in my application, I never thought I would hear from NASA again," Ochoa chuckled. "It's kind of amazing when I think back to when I was 11--and these were the people who were walking on the moon. I mean never in a million years have I thought that I would be an astronaut or that I would meet in person any of those people. I will tell you even in the astronaut office they hold a special place and a special role... and any astronaut is excited to meet Apollo astronauts because it was such a huge part of the history of our country."

"Certainly one of the things that was a highlight during my time as director was the first test flight of the Orion space craft," Ochoa remembered. "That's the one that's going to take astronauts back to the moon. First to the lunar vicinity and then a vehicle that will take them down on to the lunar surface. That test flight that we did in December of 2014 was really important to show that we are making progress on this mission. That was an exciting moment."

"Why is that mission important? For people who say, 'we've been there, we've done that. Why do we need to go back?'" Michelle asked.

"I think it's part not just about being there, but what you can learn and understand--how you can stay in a much more sustained environment," Ochoa said. "There are a lot of reasons the moon is interesting to us. Some of it is scientifically and some of it is understanding what would it take maybe to develop a base on the moon to be used to study earth or to understand what sorts of resources you can get from the moon to actually launch missions towards Mars."

"I think one of the things we really try to do at NASA is learning lessons from everything we do and carry those forward because it's a difficult business and it's a dangerous business, and you want to make sure you're continuously learning and that's something that we emphasis today," she continued. "Certainly, as director of Johnson Space Center, that was a big part of it--was lessons learned all the way back from the 60s to today and how that can make us more successful in the future."

Recently retired as the director of the Johnson Space Center, Dr. Ochoa is now using her story to inspire students. She says that girls, in particular, tend to have misconceptions about stem based learning.

"Really what science and engineering are all about is solving problems for things that you care about. Right? It's about curiosity and creativity and learning the tools that will allow you to solve a problem or develop something that is of importance to you," Ochoa said. "A lot of the time, science and engineering are not portrayed that way."

During four space flights, Dr. Ochoa logged nearly a thousand hours in orbit.

She used her background in physics and engineering to help construct the International Space Station, control the robotics for manned space walks, launching satellites and conducting life changing experiments.

"What was your passion when you were in space?" Michelle asked.

"First of all, you get assigned to a mission," Ochoa said. "So whatever that mission is, that becomes your passion. My first two missions were a part of a larger NASA program called Mission to Planet Earth. So it was understanding more about the Earth's environment."

Doctor Ochoa supports project based learning in schools, saying it provides students with real world, and perhaps even out of this world experiences.

"When you have to solve the hard problems of getting people to the moon or people to mars, there are so many other ways to use that information or use that technology that you've developed and that's what we've seen throughout the history of NASA," Ochoa said.

The former astronaut hopes her story inspires the next generation of explorers who are equipped and excited to solve any issue they're passionate about.