on Scholastic.com interviewed astronaut Ellen Ochoa during 1999's Hispanic
Heritage Month. Below is a transcript of that interview.
What are your Hispanic roots? Did you speak Spanish at home when
you were growing up?
My Hispanic roots come from my father's side. His parents were
Mexican, but my father was born in this country. He was one of 12 children.
My father grew up speaking both Spanish and English but unfortunately
he didn't speak Spanish with us at home. When I was growing up, my father
believed as many people did at the time that there was a prejudice against
people speaking their native language. It's really too bad, and I'm
glad that things have changed in recent years.
Does your being Hispanic American make you feel more pressure and
more pride about your accomplishments? Do you have that in mind when
you think of how well you've done in life?
I don't believe that being Hispanic American puts any additional pressure
on me. I seem to put enough pressure on myself as it is. As for my accomplishments,
being an astronaut has given me the opportunity to speak to children
all over, including children with the same background as myself. I think
that it's important for children to have a role model to see what they
can grow up to be. It's important they know that if they work hard,
they can be and accomplish whatever they want. I am proud to be an example
Who do you think was the most influential person in your life?
My mother influenced me the most. When I was a year old, she started
college. She had to raise five children primarily on her own and so
she couldn't take more than one class each semester. She didn't graduate
until 22 years later, but she did finish. Her primary focus was the
enjoyment of learning. That's what I got from her example.
What were you interested in when you were in fifth grade?
When I was in the fifth grade, I think I wanted to be president. I got
over that by the time I was in the sixth grade. I didn't think that
I would be an astronaut. But you never know how your interests will
change. That's why it's important never to shut down your options. In
college, I changed my major five times. I started college interested
in music and business, and graduated with a degree in physics. I didn't
actually pursue becoming an astronaut until graduate school when I learned
about the kinds of skills NASA was looking for in potential astronauts.
Why did you want to go into space?
I can't image not wanting to go into space. But I never considered being
an astronaut as an option because when I was growing up there were no
female astronauts. It wasn't until the first six female astronauts were
selected in 1978 that women could even think of it as a possible career
What is it like to operate a robot arm in space?
I have worked the robot arm on all three of my space missions, and I
really love it. It's challenging to do, but lots of fun. On my last
mission to the space station I worked with the help of cameras and monitors
because we were docked in a way that prevented me from seeing the robot
arm. This made things more difficult, but then again, everything I've
done on actual missions in space has always been easier than when I
first tried it during training.
What is NASA training like?
Everything is always harder to do in training. In training, we prepare
for anything that could happen on a space mission - anything that could
go wrong. In training things keep breaking, problems have to be solved.
Nothing has ever gone wrong on any of my missions, and our training
helps us make sure that nothing will. Each mission has its own specific.
For my last mission, we trained for nine months before the actual flight.
I started my formal NASA training in 1990. During that period I spent
about half of the time in training, the other half I spent performing
other duties. I was in training for three years before my first mission,
which isn't that long of a wait. Some astronauts have waited 10, even
16 years before they finally go into space!
What is it like to float in zero gravity?
Weightlessness is the fun part of the mission. There is really nothing
to compare it to on Earth. I guess the closest thing would be swimming
or scuba diving. It's a similar freedom of movement. What is odd is
that weightlessness seems more natural. You don't have the same kinds
of sensations in space as you do in the water.
How do you sleep on the space shuttle? Does everyone sleep
at the same time or do you take turns? Do you have weird dreams because
you're sleeping in space?
On my first two missions we slept in two shifts. We had sleeping
compartments that looked like coffins. On my last mission we slept in
a single shift. Instead of the sleeping compartments we slept in what
can best be described as a sleeping bag with hooks. You would find a
place to hook on to, and float in. As for my dreaming, it isn't that
different in space. I tend to dream a lot, whether I'm in space or at
home on Earth. I have floating dreams on Earth and non-floating dreams
on a mission in space.
What does Earth look like from space?
That's a really hard question. You have to remember that the shuttle
is moving at five miles a second, so the Earth looks very different
depending on where you are in space in relation to the position above
Earth and what time of day it is. I have to say though, Earth looks
very much like I expected it to look. The Imax films are pretty close
to what Earth really looks like from space. The main difference is that
the colors are much more vivid when you're in space.
How do you eat in space? Do you have to eat food out of a toothpaste
tube? Does the food taste good?
Astronauts haven't eaten food out of tubes for over 20 years. Most of
the food now is freeze-dried. All we do is add hot water. We eat a variety
of foods, including nuts, granola, cookies, dried fruit, tortillas.
We have drinks that we add water to as well.
How do you go to the bathroom in space?
There is a special bathroom area on board that looks almost like the
same toilet you would see at home or at school. The difference is that
instead of gravity there is an air-flow system to move the waste along.
There are two separate systems - one for the solid waste and one for
the urine. The waste gets stored in on-board tanks, which are cleaned
out when the shuttle returns to Earth. The bathrooms on the shuttle
aren't as convenient as the ones on Earth, but you get used to it.
Is it hard being an astronaut and a mother? Do you worry about
going into space now that you're a mother? How does your son feel about
your going into space?
I think it's hard being anything and a mother. Both are full-time jobs,
and you have to work very hard at both to do a good job. Personally,
I find both jobs wonderful. It is hard to be separated from my husband
and son when I go on a mission, and I miss them a great deal. But lots
of people have to be away from their families because of their jobs.
Right now my son is only 18-months old, so the last time I went into
space, he didn't really know what was going on. I think it will be much
harder the next time since he will understand more.
Can you talk to your family from space?
Yes, thanks to e-mail, when I am in space my husband and I are able
to communicate every day - which is very nice. And on missions lasting
more than 10 days we are allowed to visit with each other by having
a video conference from space.
What is the scariest thing that ever happened to you in space?
There's never really been anything for me to be scared of because nothing
has ever gone wrong on any of my missions. For me, going into space
is very exciting, not scary. The riskiest part of the flight is the
launch because it's the phase of the flight when things are most likely
to go wrong. But like I said, there have never been problems on my missions,
and besides, we are trained to handle any problems that might come along.
Do you think communication with extraterrestrials is possible? Do
you think there are other life-forms out there?
I'm not really sure if communication is possible right now, with the
technology we have today. Given the number of stars that have been discovered
in the last couple of years, it isn't inconceivable that life exists
on other planets. Though it is important to differentiate between life
that is single-celled and life-forms that are intelligent and capable
I love math and I want to become an astronaut. What can I start to
do to prepare myself?
It's good that you love math, because in order to be an astronaut, a
college degree in math or a technical science is very important to have.
Being an astronaut isn't just the science, though. An astronaut must
be both a team player and a leader as well. You should get involved
in activities where you work closely with other people - because working
closely with other people is an essential part of being an astronaut!
There are many things you can do that could help you in learning to
work with people - playing on a sports team, for instance, or learning
a musical instrument and being in a band or an orchestra. You're currently
on the selection board for new astronauts.
What do you look for in a potential astronaut, and what is their average
Most of the people who are selected are between the ages of 30 to 40.
We look for a college education in science or technology. Mission Specialists
usually have a Ph.D. or an M.D., but work experience can sometimes compensate
for advanced degrees. We look for people who can do many things well,
because people with multiple skills can usually learn things quickly.
This is a very important quality for an astronaut, as is being well
rounded. People with a background of skills or extra-curricular activities
- such as music, sports or foreign languages - stand out as well.
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