Fifty years ago this summer, Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind” on the lunar surface. In his wake hundreds of others have flown into space, including Ellen Ochoa, a four-time shuttle astronaut who last year stepped down as director of the Johnson Space Center.
Ochoa recalled the excitement at her home that day, but said the idea of an American woman becoming an astronaut was so far-fetched at the time that it didn’t occur to her that she might fly in space until 15 years later, during graduate school at Stanford.
In 1991, Ochoa became the world’s first female Hispanic astronaut. She studied the Earth’s atmosphere from the space shuttle and helped build the International Space Station. Last week she shared her thoughts on the legacy of the moon landings and on her own career in space with the Gazette.
GAZETTE: It’s been 50 years since humans first walked on the moon. Who were you then and what do you recollect about it?
OCHOA: I had just finished sixth grade and I remember being at home, watching it on TV with my family.
GAZETTE: Were people excited?
OCHOA: Well, of course. It was the biggest thing that’s happened probably in the last century, if not longer.
Even the earlier missions, Gemini and Apollo, it was the kind of thing where they’d roll TVs into your classroom if the launch was going to happen during the school day. Everybody was talking about it.
GAZETTE: Did it have an impact on your career or did that come later?
OCHOA: I wouldn’t say on me personally. This was the ’60s and an astronaut career wasn’t open to women. Many, many careers were not open to women. Nobody would ever ask a girl, “Do you want to grow up and be an astronaut?” It just wasn’t in the consciousness or part of the culture. So I never thought about growing up and participating in it at that point.
GAZETTE: At what point did you think it might be a possibility?
OCHOA: After I was in graduate school. The space shuttle flew for the first time and it was a very different kind of vehicle. It was going to be involved in a variety of activities but a lot of it was science and engineering research.
Because of that, when they started selecting astronauts for the shuttle program they broadened the population from which they would look [to include] people with a science and engineering background, as opposed to a military test pilot background.
That first class selected for the shuttle in 1978 was the first one that included women and the first one that included minorities. So that was a big deal in terms of changing the perception of who could actually become an astronaut.
GAZETTE: And you were at Stanford at the time?
OCHOA: When the space shuttle flew, yes. I was an undergrad [at San Diego State University] when the ’78 class was selected, but I was at Stanford when the shuttle flew for the first time.
GAZETTE: So while you were at Stanford, you understood that it was a possibility?
OCHOA:A couple of years after that first flight, Sally Ride flew, so that was a big deal. [It was] not just that she was the first American woman [in space], but for me it also made a difference that she had been a physics major and I had been a physics major. She had gone to Stanford, I was currently at Stanford.
That made it something I could actually conceive of because of these attributes that we had in common. Then I heard from some fellow grad students that NASA was accepting applications for the next three months or so. They were going to select [an astronaut] class in ’84.
Some of them were saying, “We’re sending in applications,” and I remembered thinking, “Really, you can just send in your application?” I had no idea how NASA [selected astronauts].
So I actually wrote NASA and said, “Please tell me about the application process, what you look for.” I didn’t apply at that point, but I made the decision that when I finished up my Ph.D., I would send in my application.
GAZETTE: The vice president is talking about sending people back to the moon within five years. Did you think at the time of the moon landings that today we’d be talking about the moon as an aspirational goal rather than something we’d be doing every day?
OCHOA: If you go back to the Apollo landings, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about American space policy, but I do think there was a general perception of, “We know how to get to the moon and we’re just going to build on that.”
The reality is it was very much a geopolitical situation. It was a space race and once we won the race, people’s attention turned to other things. We were in the middle of Vietnam at that point.
There has never, since then, been that same imperative, that [feeling that] there are things that we as a country have to do in space and have to do quickly. Without that imperative there’s just a whole different level of resources available.
At the peak of the Apollo program they had, I think, 4 percent of the federal budget. NASA now — and this is all of NASA, not just human spaceflight, but human spaceflight, planetary missions, Earth science missions, aeronautical research, everything — is less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget.
So, if you really want to make a statement about U.S. leadership, or you really want to feel like you’re taking a larger step than we have in the last few decades, I think you have to put some resources behind it. Still, I think we’ve managed to achieve an incredible amount for the resources that we get.
I say “we” but I’m no longer at NASA. I’m speaking as a private citizen now.
GAZETTE:What do you think about the moon as a goal for human spaceflight? You were involved in programs that aimed at Mars.
OCHOA:Mars is still part of the goal. If you look back over the last three administrations, there has really been — at least on the NASA side — the sense that we will do some things on the moon and then we will go on to Mars.
What has changed is [how much] of the emphasis is on the moon and [how much] is on Mars. I don’t think we were ever going to completely ignore one or the other. Are we actually going to land people on the moon? Or are we going to use the lunar vicinity as a test bed to test some of our long-duration life-support systems, with the focus really being more on Mars?
Now the focus is more on the moon and making sure that we actually land humans on the moon, but with the stated goal that we are also headed toward Mars. We’re going to do a variety of things on the moon. We’re going to support commercial activities and international partners, but with our eye toward what we need to learn from that experience that we will then carry on to Mars.
GAZETTE:What was the experience of spaceflight like? You have more than 1,000 hours in space, is that right?
OCHOA:A little less than 1,000, about 41 days over four missions.
GAZETTE:What was that like?
OCHOA:What I find most rewarding is being part of a team that accomplished a mission. That was the biggest thing that I took away from the whole experience: the joy and reward of being part of that and realizing that, with a team of really dedicated people, there’s literally nothing you can’t do. I mean really.
In terms of the experience itself, the two things that are different than anything you can experience on Earth are, [one,] the view of Earth from space. I was fortunate, particularly on my first two flights. We were at an orbit that was inclined 56 degrees to the equator so we went over the vast majority of the globe, certainly all the populated areas of the globe. That was just an amazing experience.
The second thing is you’re in a microgravity environment. You’re floating; everything you’re dealing with is floating, and you just have to figure out a different way of operating. You have to figure out, “How can I be efficient and effective when I can’t just put something down and come back to it and it’s still there?”
You have to be very, very methodical and very organized and it’s a fairly small space. So it’s just a different way of operating than if you’re in a laboratory on Earth.
GAZETTE:Did you feel “this is really cool”?
OCHOA:Oh yeah, of course.
GAZETTE:Did that fade over time, since you were up there for so many days?
OCHOA:It wasn’t really very many days at all. People are up there six months at a time now and I was up there 10 or 11 days [per flight].
It was exciting the whole time, but you’re just very busy. On a shuttle flight, because it is only 10 or 11 days, they pack in everything they think you can possibly get done.
I remember coming back from my first flight and it had seemed like a blur. People asked me a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer, like “What did it feel like the second the main engines cut off and you were actually in microgravity?” And I didn’t know, because I was thinking about the next thing that I had to do.
One of the things we were supposed to do was unpack some cameras and take pictures of the external tank. And it’s a very methodical process. First, I need to unstrap my helmet and unhook the com cable and take off the helmet. Then, unhook my two gloves, put them in the helmet, make sure they don’t float away. Tie off the helmet somewhere and make sure it doesn’t float away. Unstrap.
There’s this whole series of steps and you only have a short amount of time to do it because the external tank is floating away and you’re supposed to take pictures, so you were already into the next phase of the mission.
I got to go into space again a year and a half later. I made a list of things like, “Okay, take 10 seconds and think about what this actually feels like” because the first mission I was just charging [ahead].
GAZETTE:I have read that astronauts, and I think it was in relation to the space station, are borderline overscheduled. It seems almost a shame that you don’t get built-in time to savor the human experience.
OCHOA:I think on the space station, because you’re up there for six months, there’s more of an opportunity to do that.
On a shuttle flight, the first several days you have very little time for that. Toward the end of the mission, when you’ve accomplished a lot of your goals and you’re maybe not running quite so hard, [there’s time]. Particularly there’s a time period of a couple hours they call “pre-sleep” where you eat dinner, and you might be answering email, and have some time to look out the window. That would be the time of day when you have a little bit more of an opportunity to just take stock of the experience.
GAZETTE:Would you recommend the experience for space tourists?
OCHOA:Right now that would be suborbital, although I assume it would become orbital at some point. But it will still be spectacular.
It’s only a few minutes into the launch, maybe five minutes, when you can see the blackness of space. You’re looking down on the limb of the Earth [the Earth’s horizon], which is a view you just have never seen before.
And, once the engines cut off, you have a certain amount of time — it could be five or 10 minutes or something like that — of actual microgravity, which is again really different.
Even that just gives you that glimpse into this whole different world and whole different experience. I can totally get why people would be like, “I gotta go do this.”
GAZETTE:What about the risk? How do you balance the risk and reward? You obviously went through that calculus in your own head. Can you give people thinking about it any guidance?
OCHOA: Suborbital is a lot less risky than orbital, because you never get up to these really high speeds that you have to reach to actually remain in orbit. That makes reentry a lot more benign because you’re not dealing with the extreme heating that you get when you come back [from orbit].
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be risks. It’s not going to be like taking an airplane ride. If I was going to buy a ride on a vehicle, I wouldn’t want to be the first. I’d want to see a track record to try to understand a little bit about the reliability and about how this company is actually operating. And then I’d have to understand what is it that I think I’m going to get out of it that makes it worth taking the risk.
For me, that’s why it wasn’t just about the experience. My first two missions were part of studying the Earth’s atmosphere and understanding the ozone hole and ozone depletion. I thought, “Well, I’m contributing to science and I’m contributing to the understanding of what’s changing in our atmosphere and the implications for people on Earth.”
My third and fourth missions were part of assembling the International Space Station. It was both about building this laboratory in space — which now has had people on it continuously for over 18 years and is doing a whole variety of different kinds of research — and partly about being part of an international endeavor where we had five space agencies working together on an engineering project, which is really unprecedented in terms of international cooperation in science and engineering. It was exciting to be part of that as well.
So I felt like I was contributing to something larger than myself, that benefits people on Earth, and I was willing to take the risk. But I wanted to understand the risk and I think in some cases we didn’t fully understand it. That’s what we’re always striving to do, I would say, at NASA, is understand the risk that we’re taking and saying, “Yes, it’s worth it for these rewards.”
GAZETTE:You mentioned the importance of team and how that was valuable to you. Tell me about the friendships you have, the bond you have with people you’ve flown in space with.
OCHOA:It’s great. You do become friends and you know their families and they know your family. Some of my closest friends today are the people I flew in space with, even if I don’t get to see them very often anymore.
That’s also true of people we worked with closely on the ground, whether the trainers, or, as I got higher up in management, the other senior leaders whom I worked with. We were all working together on this goal of advancing human spaceflight. There’s something that we share that you just don’t share with other people. You have a sense of both the reward and the tragedy when things don’t go well.
Harvard Medical School grad to depart residency for astronaut training
We were all there for the loss of Columbia and many of us worked during that whole return-to-flight time to understand what happened and get back to flying. So we’ve seen the highs and we’ve seen the lows. And when you have shared that with people, that really does form a strong bond.
GAZETTE:Do you have thoughts on the need to raise the priority of the human space program if we’re going to accomplish great things?
OCHOA:I think there’s a misperception of how much the federal government spends on NASA. Again, during the height of the Apollo program it was about 4 percent. Now, less than half of 1 percent. That is not that big an investment for the benefits that we get: scientific leadership, global collaboration, technological and economic benefits. When you try to do something that’s very difficult you learn a lot along the way. You develop technology. A lot of that technology is able to be transferred to other industries. And absolutely [there’s] the inspiration.
It’s more intangible, but the fact that you can set a really high goal and then go achieve it permeates how Americans think about themselves. A lot of individuals have used that as a motivation for setting goals for themselves. And I think that is something that has been part of the American consciousness since the Apollo program.