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Ellen Ochoa plays the flute in space.
Ellen Ochoa plays the flute in space.
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Over the past decade, Ellen Ochoa has had the opportunity to visit outer space more frequently than her alma mater, San Diego State University. So when she returned to the campus last March, her reaction was not surprising.

"It's changed quite a bit since I was here," she observed.

A meteoric rise at NASA

These days, Ellen spends more time as a commercial jet passenger than a space shuttle astronaut, although she has flown four space missions and logged more than 978 hours in space. She now serves as deputy director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she helps lead and manage almost 10,000 civil servants and contractors working on a wide range of projects.

"My job runs the gamut from participating in flight readiness reviews to setting policy," Ellen explained. "Basically, it's everything involved in running a center."

Home town girl begins launch at SDSU

But the career that has taken her literally out of this world was launched close to her hometown of La Mesa when she enrolled at SDSU in the mid '70s.

"When I came to San Diego State, I wasn't sure of my direction," Ellen recalled. "I was thinking of majoring in either music or business."

At first, she loaded up on math classes because she had enjoyed the subject, but soon considered branching out. "I took a physics class for non-majors and thought, "this is really interesting,'" she recalled. Promptly, she declared physics as her major.

A balancing act

As a student "I was either in the physics building or the music building," remembered Ellen, who still plays the flute. "I needed the music as a break from my physics. There were semesters during which I took five physics classes and then I'd have wind ensemble, so it was always a nice break to be able to play music. I was also a member of the Marching Aztecs for a few years -- I thought we put on really good programs."

Ellen went on to earn a master's degree and a Ph.D. at Stanford University. She became an astronaut in 1991, flying her first space mission on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1993. Her most recent space flight was aboard the shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station in 2002.

Returning home

During a visit to SDSU, Ellen signed autographs and gave a video presentation to a group of interested students, parents and alumni about her experiences in space. She said her education at San Diego State helped her prepare for a career with NASA.

Ellen was also asked what it was like to return to SDSU years later. "It's really exciting," she said, the smile on her face reaffirming that sometimes, no matter how far you've traveled or how much things have changed since you've been gone, it's good to be back home.

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