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Monday, June 27, 2022

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SDSU Yearbook: Former Astronaut and SDSU Alumna Ellen Ochoa Captivates Campus

Students and members of the campus community listened to SDSU alumna Ellen Ochoa discuss her four shuttle missions into orbit.
By Jeff Ristine

“I could not have imagined this career when I was a student at San Diego State.”

San Diego State University takes a look back to celebrate all the accomplishments of the past year in an SDSU NewsCenter series titled “SDSU Yearbook.” SDSU is an educational leader and a growing research powerhouse with top athletics programs and exceptional, diverse students who lead. 

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Former astronaut and San Diego State University alumna Ellen Ochoa kept students at the forefront of an October 2019 return visit in which she received the university’s 51st honorary doctoral degree.

The highlight of a jam-packed day was a lecture titled “From San Diego State to Space,” delivered at the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union and open to the campus and community, in which Ochoa recounted her four shuttle missions into orbit. A role model to budding female scientists across the world, Ochoa was the first Latinx woman in space and capped her career at NASA as director of the Johnson Space Center.

“I could not have imagined this career when I was a student at San Diego State,” Ochoa said in an inspiring talk to a packed auditorium.

Ochoa also spoke extensively of her undergraduate years at SDSU. Like many new students, she said she considered a variety of majors—electrical engineering, business, computer engineering, business, journalism and music—before settling on a bachelor of science degree in physics, the program that propelled her into advanced degrees at Stanford. It was at SDSU, she said, that she first learned “what it is that you did with a physics degree,” and the kinds of jobs that would ultimately open to her.

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Ochoa also told her audience how music remained a favorite subject. She played the flute in both the Marching Aztecs and the SDSU Wind Ensemble and took the instrument with her on her first shuttle mission in April 1993 aboard the Discovery.

She took questions from children visiting from local schools, who wanted to know how it felt to be an “icon” and how she kept in touch with her family from space.

Ochoa’s day at SDSU was filled with personal contacts. 

She returned to the Physics Building, where her 1980 senior project in a field called Fourier optics occupies a lab table on the top floor and is still used by students of today. Ochoa met with one of her former professors, Jeffrey Davis, who continues to teach. Ochoa credits Davis with helping to steer her into her interest in Fourier optics, one of her specialties in her selection as an astronaut in 1990.

Ochoa also toured the much newer Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences (EIS) Complex, which was dedicated in January 2018, and had lunch with a group of College of Sciences students and faculty. She visited the student-run SDSU Rocket Project.

In addition, SDSU President Adela de la Torre announced Ochoa had designated the College of Engineering’s Femineer Program, which seeks to inspire women to pursue STEM education and careers, for a $100,000 endowment in her name from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, where she serves on the board of trustees.

Ellen Ochoa at SDSU
The former shuttle astronaut, who earned an undergraduate physics degree in 1980, returned to receive an honorary doctorate, tour campus and deliver a lecture.