Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina to go to space: How to get more women into STEM

Ochoa recently chatted with Know Your Value about NASA’s historic all-female spacewalk, what’s holding women back from going into STEM and what she’s focusing on during her retirement.
Image: NASA Astronaut Ellen Ochoa during training at Vance Air Force Base in Houston in 1993.
NASA Astronaut Ellen Ochoa during training at Vance Air Force Base in Houston in 1993.NASA / Getty Images

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By Erin Delmore

When the first all-female spacewalk almost didn’t happen earlier this spring because NASA lacked enough spacesuits to fit the women astronauts, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summed up the public outcry in three words: “Make another suit.” And while no one wanted that spacewalk to happen more than Dr. Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to go into space, Ochoa remembers laughing at Clinton’s pithy tweet.

“I read about that and I thought, ‘If only!’” Ochoa told Know Your Value, noting the suits were decades old and impossible to reproduce quickly. Ochoa would know; she joined NASA as a research engineer and retired 30 years later as the second female and first Hispanic Director of the Johnson Space Center. She logged nearly 1,000 hours in orbit over the course of four space missions.

From her own days in NASA’s elite astronaut corps, Ochoa, 61, remembers facing the same spacesuit size issues that briefly stymied Christina Koch and Jessica Meir’s historic mission.

“It’s really the decision, 25 years ago, to not continue the small [space]suit that to me, was really one of the very few examples where I think NASA made a wrong decision,” Ochoa said. While she was in the astronaut corps, NASA decided to stop making both the small and the extra-large sizes. But after the men objected, NASA kept the extra-large and dropped the small, she explained.

RELATED: NASA decision to nix all-female spacewalk sparks gender barrier debate

“They were trying to save money, which we always are, and I get that,” Ochoa said. “But I think it didn’t matter to them at that point that many, probably half of the women astronauts at that time would not fit in the suit after that, because I think that the thinking was, ‘we have plenty of astronauts that do fit in the other sizes and that's fine for now,’” Ochoa said. “I don’t know that anybody thought that another 25 or 30 years would pass and we wouldn’t have developed new suits by that point. So it was a decision that just kept living on.”

Earlier this fall, on the heels of the historic spacewalk, NASA unveiled plans for new, enhanced-mobility spacesuits in a true range of sizes. It’s being seen as a commitment to the diverse workforce NASA trumpets, and a change Ochoa said has “been a long time coming.” She cheered that development and the completion of the first all-female spacewalk as “a great milestone.”

Those are the words Ochoa uses to describe other landmark events in NASA history, like the selection of the 1978 astronaut class, which included the first women, African-American, and Asian-American astronauts, and Sally Ride’s 1983 flight, making her the first American woman in space. She credits both those developments with sparking her interest in NASA.

“I just don’t know that I would have ever gotten to the point of thinking about applying or actually applying [for a spot in NASA’s astronaut program] if I hadn’t seen Sally,” Ochoa said.As a physics major and a Stanford student, she saw enough similarities between herself and Ride to consider following in Ride’s footsteps.

Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut, communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck during her six-day space mission aboard the Challenger in June 1983. Ride died following a battle with cancer at the age of 61 in July 2012.AFP Photo/NASA / AFP/Getty Images

“Having a couple other things in common with Sally, besides the fact that we were just women, I think it was really important for me,” Ochoa said. It led her to think: “Well, maybe this isn’t the craziest idea ever and maybe this is something that I could actually do.”

She spreads that message in earnest, having made more than 300 speeches to students and organizations, particularly those geared toward women and people of color. “I think we need all the best and brightest people working in science and engineering fields, and that is certainly not limited to men or white men or anything like that,” she said.

Commander Kent Rominger; Mission Specialists Valery Tokarev, Julie Payette, Ellen Ochoa, Tamara Jernigan; Pilot Rick Husband; and Mission Specialist Daniel Barry, the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery, at the launchpad in 1999.NASA / Getty Images

Despite marginal gains in recent years, women make up less than a third of all workers in science and engineering occupations, according to the National Science Foundation. Part of what’s holding women back, she said, is a lack of information about those fields.

“Curiosity is probably one of the most important characteristics that people have who go into science, and engineering is about solving problems and creativity,” Ochoa said. “I think those are things that really appeal to girls, but it’s not necessarily spoken of that way when people talk about science and engineering.”

That’s a trap she almost fell into herself. She didn’t know any scientists or engineers growing up and took only the high school biology class that was required to graduate. “I opted out of chemistry and physics [in high school] because I just thought I wasn’t interested and I didn’t know very much about what that career even looked like,” she said.

Ochoa only began to work alongside other women when she came to NASA. Before that, she was the only woman out of some 60 researchers when she worked at a Department of Energy lab. The number of women in her graduate program in the electrical engineering department at Stanford was hardly better. But at NASA, she was immediately struck that around a quarter of the people in her department were women.

RELATED: 5 ways to close the gender gap for women in STEM

“That caught my eye right at the beginning,” Ochoa said. “What you didn't see at that time at NASA, though, was really women in leadership positions. You could sort of tell NASA had been working on recruiting a more diverse workforce, but they hadn’t really yet percolated into the leadership positions.” She witnessed that change firsthand over her 30-year career, calling it “a great advancement.”

Ellen Ochoa when she was Director of Johnson Space Center.NASA

“[But] we’re not where we need to be yet,” Ochoa said. “Pretty much any place in science and engineering, getting a more diverse workforce is something that’s still a really high priority.”

Her advice to women and people of color is to participate in organizations like the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers.

RELATED: How to grow your STEM career when you're the only woman in the room

“I think it’s helpful especially when you’re in college to get hooked up with a chapter,” Ochoa said, “because it helps you feel a little bit less alone and gives you that opportunity to meet people like yourself and kind of trade stories and tips.”

Ochoa recently spoke in front of some 2,000 attendees at the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers annual conference. Encouraging people to explore careers in STEM fields is a primary focus of her retirement, and a way to continue her career-long focus on giving back.

“To me, as I look back on my 30 years, just having the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than myself and that brings benefits to people on Earth, I just couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Ochoa said. “That is really what I think about when I look back on my career.”