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How Ellen Ochoa, the First Hispanic Woman in Space, Dealt With ‘People Who Didn't Think I Should Be There'

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This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

When people ask Ellen Ochoa if she'd change anything about her life, the former NASA astronaut quickly responds: "Oh gosh, no!"

Any small change to her story, she says, could have altered her historic journey. In 1993, Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman in space. Twenty years later, after completing three more missions to space, she became the NASA Johnson Space Center's first Hispanic director, and only its second female director.

The milestones are particularly noteworthy considering Ochoa's background. Her paternal grandparents immigrated from the Sonora region of Mexico to Arizona, before moving to southern California. Her father worked at Sears while her mother stayed at home raising five children.

Becoming an astronaut is never easy. Ochoa's experience was all the more challenging as a Hispanic woman in the '90s.

"I did get some discouragement," she tells CNBC Make It. "I can't always say whether it was because of my Hispanic background or because I was a woman, because people don't actually tell you."

Today, Ochoa, 63, is retired from NASA and living in Boise, Idaho. These days, she says, she realizes her mission was always more than just going to space.

For decades, Ochoa has spoken to students across the country, especially in Hispanic communities, about getting involved in engineering and space exploration. She has been featured in children's books, textbooks and has at least six schools named after her, many of which focus on STEM education.

Here, Ochoa talks about her journey to becoming an astronaut, how she handled workplace challenges along the way and the lessons she learned rising to the top of NASA's management ranks.

On developing a relentless childhood work ethic: 'As you can see, it was definitely worth it'

My dad's parents were Mexican, and he was the youngest of 12. By the time he was born, he was born in California. I grew up in La Mesa, a suburb of San Diego.

My mother wasn't Hispanic. She was born in Oklahoma, and moved to California when she was a teenager. My parents got divorced when I was in junior high, so she was really the one around when I was in high school.

My mother loved learning, and knew education was important to us. She didn't have the chance to go to college when she was younger. So the whole time, when my four brothers and sisters and I were growing up, she was taking one college class a semester. We would always hear her talk about her classes and see her do homework, along with us doing homework.

Homework always came first. Then my music — I started playing the flute when I was 10, and much later, got to play my flute in space — and other things. As you can see, it was definitely worth it.

On pursuing science and engineering: 'I would run into people who didn't think I should be there'

When I was going through school, it was pretty unusual for a woman to be in STEM fields. Certainly, any woman of color. In some [classes], I was the only woman. In others, maybe one of two or four. I can only remember one class with more than that.

I did get some discouragement. I can't say whether it was because of my Hispanic background or because I was a woman, because people don't actually tell you.

When I was at San Diego State University as an undergraduate, I started to explore STEM fields. I went to talk to a professor in the electrical engineering department. He made it very clear: He was not interested in having me in his department.

He said, "Well, we did have a woman come through here once, but it's a really difficult course of study and I just don't know that you'd be interested."

Fortunately, I also talked to a professor in the physics department who was much more encouraging. That's a pattern I saw throughout graduate school and early my career: I would run into people who didn't think I should be there, but also other people who were really supportive.

My Ph.D. advisors at Stanford, for example, were very supportive — and that certainly made a huge difference in my career.

On deciding to become an astronaut: 'I really needed to see' people like Sally Ride do it first

My first year in graduate school [in 1981], the space shuttle flew for the first time. NASA started to open up who they were looking for, in terms of selecting astronauts — much more interested in a variety of people with different kinds of science and engineering degrees, with less emphasis on military pilots.

A couple of years later, Sally Ride flew. That was a huge milestone: the first American woman in space. She had been a physics major, like I had. She had gone to Stanford, where I was getting my Ph.D.

Then, two years after that, the first astronaut of Hispanic heritage, Franklin Chang Diaz, flew. A lot of things were changing. Certainly, the space world was changing. I really needed to see those kinds of comparisons for me to think about it.

When I was in graduate school, I decided that I would send my application to NASA as soon as I got my Ph.D. — so I did that. About two years later, they called me and asked me to spend a week interviewing for the astronaut program.

It was my first time at the Johnson Space Center, and my first chance to talk with astronauts in person and really find out what the job was like. I wasn't selected, but I was encouraged to keep my application updated.

I later took a research position at NASA's Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, Calif. About six months after that, I became the head of a research group of about 35 people there. And then six months after that, I got called to interview for the astronaut program again.

I found out about six months later that I was selected.

On fighting discrimination in the workplace: 'These were people who didn't know me at all'

When I joined the astronaut corps in 1990, women had already been there for 12 years. There were a couple of astronauts already with Hispanic backgrounds. But I was the first Hispanic woman.

After my first interview, I got a pilot's license, because those skills are very transferable to the astronaut job. Still, the other astronauts really wondered about me, coming from my research background: "Well, OK, but can you perform operationally? You might be really smart and know a lot about engineering or science, but we also need people who can make decisions on the fly and operate in high-stress and high-visibility environments."

Looking back, every time somebody told me that I couldn't do something or it probably wasn't suited for me, or made some comment about women or other underrepresented groups, they were really just revealing [their own] bias.

These were people who didn't know me at all. They hadn't seen somebody that looked like me before in their department, and just couldn't really picture me as someone who could do the job.

On the success of her first space flight: It gave a lot of people 'something to think about'

After just a couple of years, I was assigned to my first flight. Our crew had a press conference, maybe 10 days before the flight, and somebody asked me, "What are you most afraid of?"

And I said, "I'm most afraid of being in a car accident sometime in the next 10 days and not getting to go."

When I got back, I got all kinds of invitations to speak at schools with high Hispanic populations. It feels really good to reach out to students who didn't [previously] see people who looked like them accomplishing things in the science, engineering or space world.

It gave a lot [of people] something to think about, the same way that I really started thinking about space after I saw Sally Ride flying.

STS-96 Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa holds her son, Wilson Miles-Ochoa as she steps off the bus at the Cape Canaveral Air Station Skid Strip June 7, 1999. The STS-96 crew members are preparing to return to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, after a successful 10-day mission to the International Space Station aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. (photo by NASA)
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STS-96 Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa holds her son, Wilson Miles-Ochoa as she steps off the bus at the Cape Canaveral Air Station Skid Strip June 7, 1999. The STS-96 crew members are preparing to return to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, after a successful 10-day mission to the International Space Station aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. (photo by NASA)

On fighting for leadership and management roles: 'I made the same mistake that a lot of women or people of color probably make'

Sometimes, when people asked, "Would you change anything?" I'd be like, "Oh gosh, no!"

When I went into management leadership positions at NASA after I was done flying as an astronaut, I made the same mistake that a lot of women or people of color probably make, which is [assuming that] if I just put my head down and work hard, opportunities will come up.

People still weren't seeing me as somebody who was ready or even interested in the next level of leadership. If there's a lesson, it's that you need to explicitly have these discussions with your supervisor, or maybe even a layer or two above that.

The decisions I made ended up working out for me, but you absolutely just don't know that at the time. I think you have to trust yourself a little bit.

Any small little thing might have taken me down a different career path. If I hadn't talked to that physics professor, I probably wouldn't have gotten into STEM at all, and none of this would have happened.

On managing through crisis: 'The worst times that I had at NASA'

The worst times that I had at NASA were after we lost Shuttle Columbia [in 2003, when the spacecraft broke up while returning to Earth, killing seven astronauts].

I had just gotten into a management position, and I was representing the crew office in mission control that morning. It was the absolute worst thing that can ever happen. It was difficult personally, and for everybody that worked at NASA and their families.

We had a playbook for bad days at NASA, so we weren't just making up things on the fly. I was one of the people that day that talked to the astronauts who were on the International Space Station, to let them know what happened. It was a long day.

We all tried to do two things: figure out how to best take care of [the astronauts'] families, and then understand what happened [so we could] get back to flight. And we had to do that as a team.

Some people were saying, "Well, we're never going to make it safe enough, and we shouldn't go back to flight." Others were saying, "Well, we have to accept the risks, and we should get back flying right away."

What we did was in the middle. We tried to understand more specifically what happened and what we needed to fix. In addition to fixing the technical issue and developing a way to inspect the shuttle on orbit, [we took] actions to address organizational causes — like the Mission Management Team going through training to improve communication.

The two and a half years after Columbia, before we got back to flight, were pretty difficult. But the fact that people had the same big goal in mind certainly made it a lot easier.

Advice for the next generation: 'You don't want to listen to discouragement from people that don't know you'

It wasn't easy along the way.

You don't want to listen to discouragement from people that don't know you. That's really telling you more about them. It doesn't say anything about you or your talents, interests or passions.

As time went by, I really grew to appreciate the power of intent and what a team working together can achieve. Missions don't happen because of one individual. That teamwork aspect is something that I think I've carried with me, in every position.

As an astronaut, I was already in a visible position, one where I had the opportunity to illustrate my own knowledge, contributions and teamwork. My advice to others is to have career conversations with your supervisor — or sometimes a sponsor, if your supervisor isn't receptive — to discuss where you'd like your career to go, and what steps you can take to help improve the odds of getting there.

At one point in my career, I just assumed that my hard work and accomplishments would make it obvious that I was ready for the next level — and [I] found out that wasn't the case. I had to speak up about what I thought I was capable of doing, and what I wanted.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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