Open Menu Close Menu Open Search Close Search

Ellen Ochoa, veteran astronaut, inventor, and former director of the Johnson Space Center at NASA, is awarded an honorary Doctor of Engineering during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 163rd Commencement on Sunday, May 19, 2019. (Photo by Alonso Nichols)


As an astronaut, you logged nearly 1,000 hours in space, deepening our understanding of humanity’s place in the universe. Your route to the heavens began in the lab. Harnessing your creativity and hard work to scientific insight and technical expertise, you developed innovative engineering solutions that made space exploration easier and more effective, driving forward our studies of the cosmos. Courageous and persevering, you then became the first Latina ever to venture into space, blazing a trail for others to follow in their own voyages of discovery. And with tireless commitment, you shared your wisdom and experience as a leader in our nation’s space program, inspiring by your example a new generation of astronauts. Today, you work to strengthen science and engineering policy and to open career paths in science, technology, and mathematics to young women. For your dedication to exploring new realms and expanding our knowledge of the universe, Tufts University is proud to award you the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering.


ELLEN OCHOA applied twice to NASA’s competitive astronaut training program before being accepted in 1990. Undeterred by the initial rejection, she earned her private pilot’s license to make herself a stronger candidate and continued the research on optical systems that she had started at Stanford University. Her persistence paid off, and Ochoa became the first Latina in the world to go to space, serving on a nine-day mission aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1993. She went on to participate in three additional space flights, logging nearly 1,000 hours in space.

“What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background,” she has said, “but motivation, perseverance, and desire—the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.”

That voyage led Ochoa from laboratories and space shuttles to a leadership role in the nation’s space program. In 2013 she became director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, which she headed until her retirement five years later. The center, which is home to NASA’s astronaut corps and mission control center, has a budget of more than $4 billion and employs more than 3,000 people. Ochoa was also inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and has received the Distinguished Service Medal, NASA’s highest award.

Yet she did not grow up dreaming of such achievements. When the United States began sending astronauts into space in the early 1960s, they were all men. It was only in 1983, when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, that Ochoa—then 25—started thinking that she too could be an astronaut.

Born in Los Angeles in 1958, Ochoa is the grandchild of Mexican immigrants and loved music and math as a student. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from San Diego State University in 1980 and a master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford. A classically trained flutist, she won the student soloist award from the Stanford Symphony Orchestra while studying for her doctorate, and even played the flute aboard a space shuttle.

Ochoa researched optical systems that use lasers, holograms, and similar devices to process images. She holds patents as a co-inventor for three optical systems: an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method, and a method for removing “noise” from images. Such technology is useful in automation and exploring space. One of her inventions, for example, could help a computer locate a site and land a space exploration vehicle there.

At the NASA Ames Research Center, Ochoa led a research group working primarily on optical systems for automated space exploration. As chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at Ames, she supervised 35 engineers and scientists in the research and development of computational systems for aerospace missions.

On her history-making space flight in 1993, Ochoa was a mission specialist, using the shuttle’s robotic arm to release a research satellite that would be used to study the effects of solar activity on Earth’s atmosphere. On other flights, she served as payload commander, mission specialist, and flight engineer. In the Astronaut Office, she served as the crew representative for flight software, computer hardware, and robotics; lead spacecraft communicator in Mission Control; and acting deputy chief. For five years before becoming director of the Johnson Space Center, she was its deputy director.

Married with two grown sons, Ochoa credits her mother for pushing her to study hard, which opened doors throughout her career. She tells today’s students, “I believe a good education can take you anywhere on Earth and beyond.”

Tufts will award Ochoa an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree.