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Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa

Johnson Space Center Director, 2013 - 2018

Ellen Ochoa became Johnson Space Center’s 11th center director in 2013.  She was only the second woman to lead Johnson and the first Hispanic at its helm. 

After earning her doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1985, Ochoa accepted a position at Sandia National Labs and later at NASA’s Ames Research Center where she studied optical systems for performing information processing.  She is the co-inventor on three patents:  an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method, and a method for noise removal in images.

In 1990, when she was selected to be an astronaut, Ochoa managed the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at Ames, where she supervised a staff of 35 researching computational systems for spaceflight missions.  She went on to fly in space four times and was the first Hispanic woman to do so in 1993.  That mission, STS-56, studied the sun’s impact upon the Earth and the planet’s climate.  Following STS-56, she flew on STS-66, 96, and 110.  On her first three flights, she operated the space shuttle’s remote manipulator system, or Canadarm, and on her last she used the International Space Station’s arm to install the S0 truss—the backbone of the workshop—and to move astronauts during extravehicular activities or spacewalks.  She also used her remote manipulator skills to deploy and capture two satellites in space on other missions. 

Ellen Ochoa and Don McMonagle sitting at their stations in Atlantis' aft flight deck.
STS-66 payload commander Ellen Ochoa is seen sitting at the controls for the Remote Manipulator System arm on Atlantis’ aft flight deck.  Ochoa worked in chorus with astronaut Donald R. McMonagle., mission commander, seen at his station on the forward flight deck. An RMS operations checklist floats in front of Ochoa. (Nov. 1994)

After her final flight in 2002, Ochoa became the deputy director of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate.  As deputy, she sat in Mission Control for the launch and landing of the space shuttles, two important bookends of space missions, while the head of FCOD flew to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for those two events.  On February 1, 2003, after the Space Shuttle Columbia and crew were lost, she initiated the directorate’s contingency action plan.  Ochoa remained deputy until the fall of 2006, when she became director of FCOD. 

During launch, the FCOD director represented the crew as leaders were polled on whether conditions were right for liftoff.  Once, she was responsible for scrubbing a shuttle launch.  Center director Michael L. Coats recalled Ochoa was uncomfortable with exceeding the limits for a hydrogen leak that ground controllers had detected.  They previously had agreed to certain limits, and if they fell outside of those requirements, Ochoa explained, the shuttle should not launch.  Coats said, “That’s the only case I’m aware of where one individual scrubbed the launch.”  He later named her deputy director saying, “Ellen has proven her exceptional capabilities many times in space as well as in her many roles on the ground, including most recently her superb management of Flight Crew Operations.”  When he retired at the end of 2012, she became director.

NASA and Lockheed Martin leadership team watching the Exploration Flight Test-1 launch outside of Hanger AE at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida
The NASA and Lockheed Martin leadership team watching the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) launch outside Hanger AE at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa, Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Jackie Bolden, Orion Deputy Program Manager Mark Kirasich, and NASA Astronaut John Casper.

Read Ellen Ochoa’s oral history transcripts

During her tenure, she initiated a concept known as JSC 2.0.  Because of changes in the space industry and government funding, Ochoa believed that Johnson could not continue to operate in the same way it had in the past, and she encouraged employees to advance human spaceflight by being lean, agile, responsive, and adaptive.  She also oversaw the first successful flight test of the Orion spacecraft known as Exploration Flight Test-1; the selection of four veteran astronauts to fly on the crew capsules then being built by SpaceX and Boeing to ferry crews to the International Space Station; the completion of a new biomedical research building; and the completion of the one-year International Space Station mission, which included astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.  She also promoted innovation and inclusion initiatives. 

In 2018, in her thirtieth year at NASA, Ochoa informed employees she intended to retire.  Her youngest son had turned 18, so she wrote it is “a natural point for our family in which to move on to the next phase.”  This included moving to Boise, Idaho, and turning her attention to activities of interest like playing the flute, which she had once considered as a possible career. 

Ellen Ochoa playing a flute while floating on Discovery's aft flight deck.
Ellen Ochoa, STS-56 mission specialist, takes a brief time out from a busy day in space to play a 15-minute set of flute music on the space shuttle Discovery’s aft flight deck.  Ochoa, who has played the flute for years, performed the Marine Corps Hymn, Navy Hymn and God Save the Queen for fellow crew members as well as some Vivaldi for herself. (April 1993)

Visit the NASA Oral History Collections to read oral histories with NASA’s Johnson Space Center Directors and others across NASA.

Johnson Space Center Directors

Robert R. Gilruth

November 1961 - January 1972

Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.

January 1972 - August 1982

Gerald D. Griffin

August 1982 - January 1986

Jesse W. Moore

January 1986 - October 1986

Aaron Cohen

October 1986 - August 1993

Carolyn L. Huntoon

January 1994 - August 1995

George W.S. Abbey

January 1996 - February 2001

Roy S. Estess (Acting Director)

February 2001 - March 2002

Jefferson D. Howell, Jr.

March 2002 - November 2005

Michael L. Coats

November 2005 - December 2012

Ellen Ochoa

January 2013 - May 2018

Mark S. Geyer

May 2018 - May 2021

Vanessa Wyche

June 2021 - Present