The first Hispanic woman to go to space says we’ve made progress in encouraging women and minorities to enter the sciences, but more needs to be done.
“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,” Dr. Ellen Ochoa told Yahoo Finance Presents: Hispanic Stars.
“Right from the get go, I think girls, and Latinas in particular, just aren't picturing themselves doing that from a young age,” said the former astronaut.
Ochoa spent 30 years at NASA and was the the first Hispanic to serve as director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She credits much of the agency’s work more than 15 years ago for initiating the marriage between private and public space endeavors which exists today.
“We knew we only had a few years left where the 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,” she said.
“So now we've seen several years with both SpaceX and Northrop Grumman (NOC) cargo vehicles going back and forth, and you know, for the last five or six years have been working toward crew.”
This year marked the first time astronauts were launched from American soil since the Space Shuttle program was retired almost a decade ago. The May 30, 2020, launch was a collaboration between Elon Musk’s SpaceX and NASA.
“I was extremely excited to see that very successful mission that just recently finished up with Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken,” she said about the launch.
As for billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk running space initiatives, Ochoa is all for it.
“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 infrastructure and engineering and manufacturing, and the funding has to come from somewhere,” she said.
“I think as you look across the space landscape now — and thinking beyond just human spaceflight, but other companies that are developing other launch vehicles ... there is a lot more going on there. And I think investors are very excited now about being part of that industry,” she said.
Ochoa says she is lucky to have witnessed the Earth from space over a span of four missions, and that it has shaped the way she views the world.
“You really see it as a continuum of everyone around the planet being related, connected,” said the former astronaut.
Her team spent hours studying the atmosphere around Earth.
“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,” she said.
“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,” she said.
In order to achieve the greater goal of going to Mars, Ochoa says a commitment to infrastructure is needed.
“It's not just about getting people there and back,” she said.
“It's about keeping them alive when they're on the surface and building up a situation where they can partially live off resources that are available at Mars, and understanding what the whole logistics, medical care, just everything that goes along with it,” she said.
“It's an exciting challenge, and I sure hope that we do see it, maybe as soon as the 2030s.”
Ines covers the U.S. stock market. Follow her on Twitter at @ines_ferre