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Astronaut alumna Ellen Ochoa honored by San Diego State

Thirty years ago, Ellen Ochoa became the first Latin American woman to fly into space. On Friday she returned to her alma mater for a renaming ceremony attended by many people including the university president.

San Diego State University renamed its West Commons mall the Ellen Ochoa Pavilion.

“Just as others inspired me, I hope this building will serve to inspire a generation of Aztecs to reach for the stars,” Ochoa said.

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Ellen Ochoa grew up in La Mesa and got her bachelor’s degree in physics from SDSU in 1980. For years, Ochoa managed the NASA mission as director of the Johnson Space Center.

But soon after first joining NASA she became an astronaut and flew her first mission on the space shuttle Discovery 30 years ago. There would be three more space missions to come.

“I certainly loved seeing the earth from space. San Diego harbor is very distinctive and I did get a chance to fly over that,” Ochoa said.

“My first two flights, we were studying the earth’s atmosphere, the problem of the ozone hole and ozone depletion," she said. "And on my third and fourth flights we were part of assembling of the international space station.”

Ochoa’s academic life at SDSU took many turns. She claims to have changed her major five times, eventually choosing physics. She would later get a doctoral degree from Stanford in electrical engineering.

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Ochoa took part in the music program throughout her college years. SDSU president Adela de la Torre, who spoke at Ochoa’s dedication, said she was almost certainly the first astronaut to play the flute in space.

Yes, she was a physicist, she was an astronaut, but she was also a musician,” de la Torre said. “And that is so important to understand because in order to broaden our horizons we need to embrace every dimension of who we are.”

 A young admirer of Ellen Ochoa shows her artwork and her message at the San Diego State renaming ceremony. May 5, 2023
Thomas Fudge
/
KPBS
A young fan of Ellen Ochoa shows her artwork and her message at the San Diego State renaming ceremony. May 5, 2023

Ochoa is now retired. But she says she remains excited about NASA’s work, especially plans for another moon landing.

“There’s the Artemis program, which is initially people going to the moon, and then understanding what it’s going to take to go on to Mars as well,” Ochoa said.

Ochoa added that three of her siblings also got degrees from SDSU. She said her mother took classes there for about 20 years, eventually graduating two years after her daughter.