24 Years Ago Ellen Ochoa Was the First Latina In Space, Now She’s Heading to Astronaut Hall of Fame

Lead Photo: Photo by NASA/Liaison
Photo by NASA/Liaison
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Twenty-four years ago, the trailblazing Ellen Ochoa became the first Latina in space. The NASA astronaut made history back in 1993, and continues to do so today. On May 19, she’ll be inducted into the US Astronaut Hall of Fame. “I’m honored to be recognized among generations of astronauts who were at the forefront of exploring our universe for the benefit of humankind,” Ochoa said, according to KCET. “I hope to continue to inspire our nation’s youth to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, so they, too, may reach for the stars.”

Through her career, she’s done more than inspire younger generations of space exploration enthusiasts, she’s broken barriers. The 58-year-old California native – who is of Mexican descent – began her career at NASA in the late 1980s. However, she didn’t always expect to go into this field. In 1981, Ochoa was a PhD candidate looking to become a research engineering; Sally Ride also became the first US woman in space. That’s when she realized her true path.

“Putting that all together with my interest in space is what led me to apply [to NASA],” she said, according to NBC News. “You could do research in lots of different areas. The wide variety of tasks you could do with the space shuttle is something that really interested me.”

She joined NASA as a research engineer at Ames Research Center in 1988. She began at Johnson Space Center in 1990 when NASA selected her as an astronaut. On her first trip to outer space, she served on a nine-day mission aboard the Discovery space shuttle. She went on three additional missions, and spent about 1,000 hours in space, according to NASA.

In 2013, she became the second woman (and the first Latina) to head the Johnson Space Center, supervising 13,000 employees. In her position, she ensures that shuttles are safe, and she spreads the gospel of space travel. “Being an astronaut, and part of a team, is really rewarding, and now I have a different perspective,” she said four years ago. “The end goal is still the same – carrying out exciting and challenging mission in space.”

Her storied career has brought the classical flutist many accolades, including NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal. She’s also had four schools named after her, so when she’s inducted on May 19 in Titusville, Florida, she’ll have more than earned it.