Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Optical analysis systems
Ellen Ochoa's career offers an outstanding example of how invention can lead to adventure: she established herself as an innovative engineer and went on to become the world's first Hispanic female astronaut.
Ochoa was born in 1958 in Los Angeles, but grew up in La
Mesa, California. Throughout her youth, she devoted herself
to music as well as math and science. When she graduated from
San Diego State University in 1980 with a B.S. in Physics,
Ochoa was considering a career either as a classical flutist
or in business. But instead, mindful of her mother's insistence
on the importance of education, Ochoa chose to enter graduate
school at Stanford University.
When Neil Armstrong had first walked on the moon (July 1969),
Ochoa was 11 years old; and it never would have occurred to
her then that she too might someday become an astronaut. However,
in 1983, when Ochoa was midway between earning her M.S. (1981)
and Ph.D. (1985) in Electrical Engineering, Sally Ride became
the first female U.S. astronaut. This gave Ochoa the encouragement
to aim high: upon gaining her doctorate, she applied to NASA
to become an astronaut herself.
At Stanford, Ochoa specialized in designing optical systems
that analyze and draw conclusions about the objects they "see."
After graduating, she continued this work at Sandia National
Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sandia's work for NASA
includes developing optical, computerized recordings and models
of events and phenomena in space. In time, Ochoa as co-inventor
won patents for three optical devices: a system that inspects
objects; a system that identifies, and can "recognize," objects;
and a system that minimizes distortion in the images taken
of an object. Later, working at NASA's Ames Research Center
in Mountain View, California, Ochoa branched off into developing
computer systems designed for aeronautical expeditions; here
she supervised a staff of 35 fellow scientists.
Ochoa's expertise in optics and computer hardware had caught NASA's attention. The systems developed by Ochoa had the potential to improve not only the gathering of data but also the assessing of the integrity and safety of equipment. In 1990, NASA accepted her into its astronaut training program, and in July 1991, Ochoa became an official U.S. astronaut.
Less than two years later, Ochoa flew as a Mission Specialist on a Discovery Space Shuttle Mission (STS-56, April 1993). The next year, she was Payload Commander on a follow-up Shuttle Mission (STS-66, November 1994). On the Shuttle expeditions, Ochoa conducted studies of the Sun's effect on the Earth's atmosphere and climate, deploying satellites like ATLAS-2 and -3.
Ochoa has participated in an international study of damage to the Earth's ozone layer, and for two years was in charge of U.S. Astronaut Office Support for the International Space Station project. She also continues to do research, and gives presentations to audiences ranging from schoolchildren to astrophysicists.
Ellen Ochoa has won numerous awards for her success as an
engineer, an astronaut, and a role model---not just for Hispanic
or female aspiring scientists, but for anyone who believes
that excellence will eventually find its recognition and reward.