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Yahoo Finance Presents: Hispanic Stars - Dr. Ellen Ochoa

This series of Yahoo Finance Presents highlights Hispanic and Latino executives and leaders in the fields of tech, science, and finance for Hispanic Heritage Month. On this episode of Hispanic Stars, Dr. Ellen Ochoa, former NASA astronaut and former director of the Johnson Space Center sat down with Yahoo Finance's Ines Ferre. She spoke on what the future of space travel looks like, including involvement from private companies and potential travel to Mars, as well as what it was like being the first Hispanic woman in space, and encouraging women and Hispanics to be more involved in space exploration and STEM careers.

Video Transcript

[INTRO MUSIC]

INES FERRE: Welcome to "Yahoo Finance Presents Hispanic Stars". We're joined by Dr. Ellen Ochoa, former NASA astronaut and former director of Johnson Space Center. Ellen, thank you so much for joining us.

ELLEN OCHOA: Thank you, so glad to be here.

INES FERRE: This year we saw astronauts being launched from American soil for the first time in almost a decade thanks to SpaceX and NASA. What do you make of the collaboration between private companies like SpaceX and NASA?

ELLEN OCHOA: Well, it's something that NASA has been working toward for a number of years, and in fact, at Johnson Space Center-- oh gosh, it's been almost 15 years is when we first started working with a couple of companies to initially deliver cargo to the International Space Station and back. We knew we only had a few years left where this space shuttle would be available, and we wanted to see what companies could come up with to provide that as a service to NASA, which was, of course, quite a different model than we'd had before.

So now we've seen several years with both SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, cargo vehicles going back and forth. And, you know, for the last five or six years I've been working toward crew, so I was extremely excited to see that very successful mission just that just recently finished up with Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

INES FERRE: And we've seen Jeff Bezos with the Blue Origin, Elon musk with SpaceX. Do you think that it takes millionaires and their private companies to really launch initiatives beyond our imagination where man can go in the future?

ELLEN OCHOA: Well, I certainly think the ideas can come from anywhere. If you are getting, though, involved in actually launching people, there is a fair amount of, you know, infrastructure, and engineering, and manufacturing, and the funding has to come from somewhere. And I think maybe when those companies were started, it might not have been as easy at that time to get outside funding. You know, people just weren't sure how long would it take, you know, when would you actually see a return on your investment, you know, all those questions that investors would ask.

But I think, as you look across the space landscape now and thinking beyond just human spaceflight but, you know, other companies that are developing, other launch vehicles and, you know, maybe launching even CubeSats and SmallSats, you know, there is a lot more going on there. And I think investors are very excited now about being part of that industry.

INES FERRE: And there's some really cool projects that are going on in space, including 3D printing. There's even testing of 3D printing of human tissues to eventually make organs. Out of these advancements, which ones excite you the most, and which do you think can come to the finish line first?

ELLEN OCHOA: Well, you know, I kind of look at it from the point of view of we are really seeing the fruit of building the International Space Station. So it was this dream of having an international cooperation to build a laboratory in space that could do research and technology development in just a whole variety of areas. It could be biotechnology, new materials, you know, understanding more about Earth and its resources, combustion physics. You know, there's so much capability up there.

And I was lucky enough to be in pretty much almost from the [? beginning ?] of [? that. ?] I started working in that program in early 1995, before, you know, anything was being built and we were trying to decide how we were going to design it, build it, operate it. And so now you see all of these experiments going on and technology being demonstrated, like you mentioned, 3D printing.

I think we're on maybe about the third generation on space station right now, and including-- of human tissue, and we've done DNA sequencing and just a whole variety of things that we couldn't have imagined when people were first starting to think about the station. So I'm really excited and proud of what the International Space Station has become and the variety of customers that it has.

INES FERRE: And we know that NASA's aim is to get back on the moon by 2024 and then Mars beyond that. Do you see us going to Mars in this lifetime?

ELLEN OCHOA: Oh, absolutely, as long as we decide it's a priority because it takes both technology development and engineering, but funding as well, and it takes a funding over a sustained period of time because it is a-- it's a difficult endeavor, definitely not impossible. I don't think there's any hurdles that can't be overcome, but you have to make the commitment that you're going to build the infrastructure, which means, you know, it's not just about getting people there and back.

It's about keeping them alive when they're on the surface and building up a situation where they can partially live off, you know, resources that are available at Mars and understanding what the whole logistics-- medical care, you know, just everything that goes along with it. It's an exciting challenge, and I sure hope that we do see it, maybe as soon as the 2030s.

INES FERRE: And Virgin Galactic is the tourism company which has garnered so much attention since its IPO. It wants to take humans on these voyages, 90-minute voyages, to the edge of space and then eventually to do point-to-point travel using supersonic travel. And do you see this sort of disrupting our way of travel, that we will eventually be able to get from point A to point B, New York to Hong Kong, let's say, in an hour?

ELLEN OCHOA: Well, you know, I don't know exactly the timeline on which Virgin Galactic is looking at that. I'm sure anybody who's ever traveled from the US to, you know, some of the Asian countries would certainly love to see the opportunity to get there in an hour or two or something like that. You know, I think initially it will be a very, you know, amazing and emotional experience for people that just even get to do those suborbital experience that people are starting to offer now.

And, you know, I feel pretty lucky that I've had the chance to see Earth from space, not just for a few minutes, but for a total of 41 days in space over my four missions. And it really does give you a different perspective of the Earth, and my hope is that a lot of people will get to see the Earth from that perspective.

INES FERRE: And what have you learned from that perspective?

ELLEN OCHOA: Well, first of all, you know, when you're orbiting the Earth every hour and a half, you kind of just view the Earth differently. It's not like you live in just one little place and it's just your own neighborhood, or your own city, or even your own state that somehow affects your life. You really see it as a continuum of everyone around the planet being related, connected.

And, of course, you can't help but notice the fragility of some of the parts of the Earth that you see. On my first two flights, we were studying the Earth's atmosphere and particularly, the problem of ozone depletion and the ozone hole, so we spent a lot of time looking at that thin layer of atmosphere that you see as you look at the curvature of the Earth and realizing it looks so thin and fragile compared to the size of the earth. And you realize, that's what's keeping us all alive here. We really have to understand what impacts the atmosphere and what we, as humans, should be doing to make sure that it's going to continue to support life. And you can think about that in terms of the oceans and the land as well, and those are things that really are very noticeable when you get the chance to view it from space.

INES FERRE: What an amazing perspective. You were the first Hispanic woman to go to space and also the first Hispanic director of the Johnson Space Center. Do you feel like you had to break glass ceilings on the way in your career?

ELLEN OCHOA: Well, I have to point to people who came before me, right? I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to those that came before us. Certainly if you talk directly about NASA and the astronaut corps, the first six women were selected in 1978, and that was also the class of astronauts that had the first minority astronauts as well. And before that, you just didn't see anybody like that in the astronaut program, and so definitely those women who came before me made it so much easier when I joined the astronaut corps.

I have a picture of me and two of my astronaut colleagues, who are also women, on one of my flights in space where we're holding a flag of the National Women's party that was used 100 years ago as women we're fighting for the right to vote, and I had been on a presidential commission in the year prior to this flight in space on the celebration of women in American history. And it was timed for the 150th anniversary of the first women's rights convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, and it was really my participation on that commission that probably gave me a lot more gratitude and respect for the more than 70 years it took from that convention to when women got the right to vote.

And you could see a clear path from all of that, maybe not a short path or a straight path, but a clear path between that and laws that changed that allow women to take jobs, to be able to be offered jobs like astronaut that we're closed to them before. So I definitely thought about that when I was selected and when I was flying in space.

INES FERRE: And what will it take to attract more women, more Hispanics, into the sciences?

ELLEN OCHOA: Yeah, you know, that's a problem that a lot of people work on, and, you know, we've made some progress. So that's on the positive side, but still have a long ways to go. And I think it's still that, in our culture, if you ask somebody to picture a scientist or an engineer, overwhelmingly that picture still looks like a white man, and so right from the get-go I think girls and Latinas in particular just, you know, aren't picturing themselves doing that from a young age. And you really need to be thinking about it certainly by the time you're in high school because you want to take the right courses in high school that would prepare you to study STEM careers after high school as well.

So there are a lot of programs across the country, and I've had the chance to talk or somehow contribute to a lot of them that are focused on looking at how we attract more girls and more Latinas into the space-- actually, just STEM careers in general. And it usually involves making sure they understand it's about creativity. It's about curiosity. It's about either discovering new knowledge or solving challenges, working as a team. I really think those things really do appeal to girls, but they don't picture that as being that's what science and engineering is all about.

INES FERRE: Did you envision yourself, as a young child, being an astronaut one day?

ELLEN OCHOA: Absolutely not, not at all. You know, I was at a pretty formative age when the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon. It was the summer between elementary school and middle school. And of course, I was fascinated with it, just like people all across the country, all across the world, but it never ever occurred to me that was something that I could grow up and do.

You know, as I mentioned, all astronauts were men at that time. You know, nobody would go up to a girl, even a girl who is really good at math like I was, and say, well, what do you think about growing up to become an astronaut? And it just-- you know, it just wasn't in the space that anybody thought about. And so again, the progress of the civil rights movement, the equal rights movement in the 70s-- those were the things that opened up these careers. So I came around about at the right time to be able to take advantage of that.

INES FERRE: Lastly, what advice do you have to people who want to reach your career, what you've done in life?

ELLEN OCHOA: Well, first of all, I would encourage people from all kinds of backgrounds. We need your brains. We need your enthusiasm and your problem-solving skills, and so if you're at that point, particularly as students, where you're not sure where you want to head, I would definitely encourage you to take math and science classes in high school so that you'll be prepared to go into those fields, whether it's a two-year degree, four-year degree, or you go on to a PhD and become an academic researcher. You know, there's a whole range of careers that I think are interesting and challenging with a STEM background.

So check out those courses, persevere, and if you hear from someone that isn't encouraging you, it's probably somebody that doesn't know really anything about you. And go to those people that you know support you, or seek them out, you know, at your school or sometimes with after-school programs. Learn more about what it takes, and then just go for it.

INES FERRE: Dr. Ellen Ochoa, thank you so much for joining us.

ELLEN OCHOA: My pleasure. Thank you so much.