Ellen Ochoa Touts a "Golden Age" for Research in Orbit

There’s not much that can give you a new outlook on Earth like looking down at it from space.

Ellen Ochoa has done that four times.

“You suddenly get a perspective that I don't think you can get anywhere else,” said Ochoa, now the head of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “You think about the people and places that really mean a lot to you. You see lots of examples of human civilization, and also areas where you can see the effects that humans have had on the planet, whether it's smog over cities or deforestation or other things like that. You really see that with your own eyes in a way that other people don't get to.”

Ochoa, who was elected a AAAS Fellow in 2012, is slated to speak at the AAAS 2018 Annual Meeting in Austin. She’ll deliver the Friday evening plenary lecture, talking about the International Space Station and its value as a research platform.

The station is home to NASA’s own research, testing systems and people for insights into future long-duration space flight, and projects that the ISS hosts through its status as a national laboratory.

 “We’ve done a lot of different things associated with cancer research. We’ve done materials science work. We have payloads on the outside of [the] station like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is looking at very fundamental cosmology, trying to understand more about dark matter and dark energy,” she said.

Ochoa grew up in a suburb of San Diego. And earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from San Diego State University. She went on to get a masters and PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford before becoming an astronaut in 1991.

Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman in space, logging 978 hours in the space shuttles Discovery and Atlantis and aboard the space station—including the first mission to dock with that platform in 1999.

“My motivation originally for applying to NASA was I was a graduate student studying to become a research engineer, working in a lab,” Ochoa told AAAS MemberCentral. “The ability to actually do science in space and in a unique laboratory, that you couldn't do anywhere else was a huge draw for me.”

On her early flights, Ochoa said some of the research involved measuring the hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer, which had been damaged by decades of chlorofluorocarbon emissions.

Ellen Ochoa plays the flute in the aft flight deck in 1993.  | Credit: NASA

The world had just started to phase out chlorofluorocarbons, which had been widely used in refrigerators, air conditioners, and foam packaging—efforts that are now starting to show results.

 “When I was on these missions, that's exactly what they expected to see in the 21st century,” she said. “So the fact that we're actually measuring that now is exciting.” But she said that when it came to science, there was a drawback to the shuttle program.

“I remember talking to one of the principal investigators after I got back from I think it was my first flight, and I was saying, ‘Is there anything that, you know, we can do that will help make a future flight for you even better?’ And he's like, ‘Yeah, you could stay in space longer.’”

The United States and the then-Soviet Union had already put smaller space stations into orbit, like Skylab and Mir. Plans for a more permanent venture eventually “morphed” into today’s ISS, a joint American-Russian platform.

Now Ochoa is based on the ground at Johnson, which is home not only to the space agency’s mission control but the headquarters of its astronaut corps and the American operations of the ISS. She’s  involved not only in keeping the station humming—the program is expected to stay in operation until 2024, if not later—but opening up the Final Frontier to commercial ventures.

NASA is already using unmanned private spacecraft to resupply the ISS, and it hopes to conduct flight tests for commercial crew vehicles this year. Ochoa said the space agency is also trying to convince private ventures to use the ISS for research and perhaps build their own space station modules.

“What we're trying to do is make sure that there are a variety of companies that have that capability that understand what it takes to actually interface with a station, whether it's the ISS itself or potentially some follow-on commercial station, and be able to develop that hardware and make sure it operates in the environment that it's intended to operate in,” she said.  

But for now, Ochoa said the station is already going through a “golden age.”

“We have such a wide variety of research and development activities going on, and we’ve got a vehicle coming or departing about every three weeks,” she said. “It’s quite a busy and productive place, and the fact that I had something to do with assembling it—I can’t believe I got so lucky.” 

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