Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Houston, Texas – 15 May 2018
Today is May 15th, 2018. This interview with Dr. Ellen Ochoa is being
conducted at the Johnson Space Center for the JSC Oral History Project.
The interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal. Thanks again for this final
I know you’re busy trying to wrap up things up and get out of
town, but I thought we would just try and capture a few more things
before you left. One of those was JSC 2.018. I know you rolled out
some new plans, and we talked about all the various iterations. But
I thought it might be nice to capture that [version], because as we’ve
talked about in the past, things that are online tend to disappear
into the abyss.
Again I worked with our senior staff to talk about what should we
really focus on this year. Of course they’re all in some way
mission-related, but it’s a little bit more about how we do
things, not so much what.
The first one is achieve a flight tempo for Orion and Commercial Crew.
So this is really about how we approach getting to first flight and
getting to certification. We just realized there are a lot of people
here who weren’t necessarily either around when Shuttle was
flying regularly or maybe weren’t right in the process of doing
it. Those of us who did support Shuttle just know there’s this
whole mindset. When you’re actually flying and when you’re
trying to get these missions off regularly, you can’t turn things
into engineering and research projects. You have to determine pretty
quickly what kind of information do I need to get in order to make
a decision about whether we can fly with this piece of equipment as
is or whether we need to change it, and if so what are the options.
You’ve got to quickly come up with these options and understand
the situation and get to a point where a program manager can then
make a decision and move on.
When you’re in development, you’re in a different mindset.
You’re trying to get the design right. You’re trying to
understand what testing you need. So we need to make that switch from
development to what it’s really going to take to operate these
vehicles, so we want people to be very conscious of that. As we move
toward of course AA [Ascent Abort]-2 but also EM [Exploration Mission]-1
and then eventually EM-2 where crews are on board—EM-1 is that
opportunity where, especially since no crew [is] on board, you can
really look carefully. There’s an issue with some piece of equipment.
What really is the risk if we fly without changing anything and are
we willing to take that risk in order to continue to move on and get
to EM-2 and what would it take. So we want people to focus on getting
to those decisions, coming up with options reasonably quickly, understanding
that you never get all the data you want.
Same for Commercial Crew. Of course we’re in a little bit different
situation with Commercial Crew, because you have the two providers
who are really supposed to be essentially making the decisions that
get you towards certification. In the end NASA needs to sign off and
if we’re not getting the data that we need, we have to make
sure we’re communicating that in order to get us to certification.
So that was the overall emphasis of the first one.
Then there was an emphasis on ISS [International Space Station] commercialization.
Again it’s not that we are not working toward commercialization
in a wide variety of ways. This is about accelerating that and making
sure that across our technical orgs that support ISS we’re also
thinking about how we would transition to a point where civil servants
aren’t actually doing the work that they’re doing right
now. We’ve transitioned so that other companies are doing it.
Clearly the ISS Program has been very focused on customers. Of course
they also have the commercial resupply services contracts, so we take
advantage of companies that have developed these cargo transportation
services. We’re working on Commercial Crew, so that’s
another part of it.
Also the ISS Program had a contract last year called REMIS (Research,
Engineering, [Mission Integration] Services). Basically it’s
one of those multiple award contracts where you have a variety of
companies, large and small, who can do certain types of services that
support the payloads on board. Are they building the payload hardware,
are they integrating it, are they providing some of the services that
oftentimes we have done or we have been in charge of? Even if we’ve
used a contract, as civil servants we’ve been in charge of making
sure that it happens. Trying to make sure that there are a lot of
companies out there that can do that, so that as we go into a post-ISS
era people can continue to achieve a lot of really interesting R&D
[Research and Development] in space.
Then we’ve challenged our flight operations organization, our
engineering organization to say, “Okay. Think about a transition
away from you all doing what you are doing for ISS, and somebody else
is either doing it for ISS or they’re doing it for some other
type of space station. What does that really mean? What does that
look like? How should we help with that transformation? How and when
do you switch accountability?” Because right now as the civil
servants overall in charge, we feel accountable for the success of
everything that happens on ISS. So that’s another part of JSC
Then the third part is really focused on our exploration efforts going
forward and on the gateway [Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway]. Of course
the real strategy comes from [NASA] Headquarters [Washington, DC],
although a lot of our folks directly support Headquarters in developing
that strategy. I also wanted to say, “What else could we be
doing here at JSC that helps move that forward, that is going to help
overall HEO [Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate]
and NASA achieve success in gateway? Can we start to delve down into
the next layer about what it really means to run and integrate gateway,
looking at the possible activities that might happen? Are there other
things we should be doing this year that address how you might integrate
all these different partners?”
Of course we’re well versed in that through our ISS Program
where we bring together NASA Centers, international partners, commercial
companies that both have spacecraft as well as payloads. You can see
that very same kind of thing happening for gateway where you have
all these different variety of partners. But you still need to integrate,
need to understand how do you actually help each one of these partners
achieve what they want to achieve. In some cases it may not be that
closely related to what NASA is using it for, but we still want to
enable a variety of different activities. So those are the three efforts
really for JSC 2.018.
Sounds like a lot of work. You’ve been in this position now
for over five years, and you’ve had quite a few deputies.
Ochoa: I have.
I thought it was interesting. What did you think about that, that
you had so many people come in and out of the office? Did you see
any drawbacks? Or were there benefits to having so many people in
Ochoa: I think
first of all they’ve all been great people to work with. I didn’t
anticipate changing six months in, but Steve [Stephen J.] Altemus
had a great opportunity to go off and be an entrepreneur in the engineering
and space business that he was interested in doing.
When I selected Kirk [A.] Shireman, who at that time was the Deputy
Program Manager of ISS, my feeling, and I told him this, was that
if there was an opening at some point for the Program Manager I wanted
to make sure, if that’s what he wanted to do, he would have
that opportunity. I didn’t want him to think taking Deputy Center
Director would take him out of the running at some point in the future
for Program Manager. He was my Deputy I think a couple of years, and
in fact that’s exactly what happened. The Program Manager left,
and he put his name in the hat for the ISS Program Manager. Of course
with his background he was vastly well qualified for that position
and got selected for that position. So that actually happened exactly
the way I thought it might, and I think he thought it might. I thought
it was important to show other people if you come do this Deputy Center
Director position, sure, it could lead into a Center Director position,
but it can also lead into other top leadership positions here at JSC
or at the Agency. Those are also viable paths, so I think we were
able to show that.
Then I was lucky enough that Mark [S.] Geyer accepted to become my
Deputy. He’d been Orion Program Manager for a number of years.
Again I think it’s really good to get folks who have been in
programs to come be on the institutional side and vice versa, because
you’re really then building well-rounded managers, people who
really know what it takes across the whole board to make our programs
successful, to make our missions successful. Mark knew everything
there is to know about program management but had a fair amount to
learn about some of the things here at the Center, particularly in
the mission support directorates, how they operate, what their budgets
look like, the whole variety of services, and how they work with all
of the orgs here and across NASA. He had that opportunity.
Then of course Mark got this opportunity to go do a detail at Headquarters.
Even though I hated for him to leave, it was a great opportunity for
him to go be Deputy to Bill [William H.] Gerstenmaier. Obviously we’re
a HEO center, Human Exploration and Ops Center. I felt he could be
really really helpful up there and certainly didn’t want to
hold him back from that great opportunity to be up there. Of course
he was up there during a year where there was a lot of transition.
They were more broadly trying to understand where the administration
wanted to go in exploration and what an exploration campaign might
look like, and Mark was right in the thick of that. I think now he’s
been selected as Center Director and he’s coming back, he will
bring all that with him and that will make him even more valuable.
Everything that he’s done, his program experience, his experience
as Deputy Center Director, and his experience at Headquarters, will
be hugely valuable here at JSC, really makes him the perfect choice.
I’ve had the opportunity, while he’s been on detail, to
have a couple of different actings. People who have been part of the
Center Director Office either for a long time or at least at some
point, Vanessa [E.] Wyche and Melanie [W.] Saunders. They both did
a great job for me as well.
One thing that we didn’t talk about, and I know it’s a
sociocultural kind of thing, and that’s the book The Martian.
This is one of the things I was trying to find online. I could have
sworn that there were book clubs here at JSC and that you started
encouraging people to actually read that book. I wondered if you would
talk a bit about that, why you saw the book as important for people
to read, and how it might affect JSC’s future.
Ochoa: I read
the book, and I found it fascinating. What I really liked about it
was that it really captured the operations culture that we have here
at NASA. Of course a lot of it was focused on human spaceflight, so
here at Johnson Space Center.
A lot of it just sounded so familiar in terms of how you would respond
to scenarios and how an actual astronaut stranded on Mars would think
about, “What do I need to do to survive, what’s the first
thing that’s going to kill me, what’s the next thing,
what’s the next thing?” That’s exactly how we train—trying
to understand what are the risks, what are the hazards, how do I prioritize,
how do I work through all of these things. Then of course, once he
was able to get back in contact with Earth, having the team on Earth
work with him, which is exactly what we do in human spaceflight.
And yet, it was projected just enough in the future—and of course
we were working on the journey to Mars—that to me it helped
bring that future a little bit closer to all of us working on that.
Because we could really picture, “This could actually happen.”
We actually will have humans on Mars in hopefully the not too distant
future. You always have to be prepared for anything to happen and
things to go wrong and how you would support them. This was just one
scenario that an author thought up, but I thought it was just a really
good thing for our folks to read about and think about and realize
that this is where we’re headed, this is what we have to be
prepared to do.
I think people in general really enjoyed the book. There’s a
lot of humor in there as well, so much so that you could almost, with
the different characters, think about real people that you knew that
were very much like some of these characters. So I think people just
really appreciated that. It seemed very real, the responses and the
kind of things that people did in that book.
So we had a theme of Mars that year. We brought the author, Andy Weir,
here to speak. We tried to do various things highlighting what we
are doing on our journey to Mars that year, using at least partly
the book as a tie-in. Of course we had a couple of actors from the
movie come by as well. Those were all things that I think were fun
for our employees but also had a serious purpose in terms of yes,
this is what we have to be prepared to do, and this is what we’re
looking forward to in our future.
I’ve noticed that you have your own Twitter feed. I wonder if
you would talk about social media and why you think it’s valuable
and important as a Center Director and former astronaut.
I started it a couple years ago. I was shamed into it by Bob [Robert
D.] Cabana, who had one at KSC [Kennedy Space Center, Florida]. I
didn’t really ever tell him that. He never said something like
that to me. Clearly it’s a way to communicate—lots of
people are on social media and a lot of them are on Twitter.
As I would go around and visit labs around site, I realized I was
missing an opportunity if I was the only one seeing it. Occasionally
we’d have a JSC photographer come along and maybe there’d
be an article internal to our Center about me and the Deputy visiting
someplace on site. But nobody else was hearing about that. So I thought
here’s this very easy way to communicate, and I’m just
not taking advantage of it.
I had my External Relations folks. “OK, tell me what I need
to do to start up a Twitter account.” They helped me at the
very beginning, but I’m the one that has done all the tweets.
Nobody else knows exactly what I would want to tweet or say, so that
was a ground rule from the beginning, that I was going to be doing
all of it. I was just getting advice from them on how exactly to set
it up and what I was supposed to do exactly. It gave me a chance as
I went around the site to highlight things that we were seeing. Of
course I often retweet with or without a comment from the ISS Program
Twitter account, Orion, and Commercial Crew, so that all the things
that are going on across the programs that we either lead or support
are something that I’m amplifying as well.
One of the things that we didn’t talk about that you mentioned
about at the all-hands were changes in the way JSC communicates. Obviously
social media is one of those. Would you talk about the changes that
have been implemented under your tenure?
Ochoa: I think
our External Relations Office has done a great job in understanding
that they have to keep evolving because how people get their information
is constantly changing. They’ve made probably at least two big
revamps of all of our communications in the five plus years that I’ve
been Center Director, and certainly been in social media in a big
There’s really so much to do here, being the home of human spaceflight,
so it’s not only the accounts from the programs and from the
Center itself, but also the astronauts who are on the ISS generally
all have Twitter accounts. You’re getting that daily, pictures
from space, or something about what they’re doing up there,
and lots of people really enjoy following those. Of course we’ve
done things like Google Hangouts and Facebook Live events. So it’s
not just Twitter. It’s Facebook and it’s Instagram and
it’s all of these things. Pretty much all of the platforms that
have evolved that can bring in audiences we’ve used.
Then in terms of other internal and external communications, [we are]
always trying to look at what sort of information are you trying to
get out, who are you trying to reach, why the way we’re doing
it today isn’t really the way we should be doing it. It’s
much less press releases, and it’s really getting the information
out in different ways. Most recently they revamped all of our internal
communications under the Roundup label to just brand it in a way where
you could see how they were all connected and then what each one was
used for in a little bit different way and made sure that they made
Another thing they did, what was it, about two or three years ago,
and again this was in response to shrinking budgets. We used to have—was
it a half hour or an hour, I think it was an hour program every week
on here’s what’s going on on ISS. It was just becoming
difficult to support with the number of people that we had, so they
made it a shorter program and then they developed this other product
called Space to Ground, which is a two-minute video they put out once
a week just narrating in a weekend anchor kind of format of here’s
what happened on ISS this week. The nice thing about that is it’s
a two-minute video. You can post it on all the social media. You can
make it available to science museums across the country or across
the world. It’s just a real easy way for people to see what’s
going on on the International Space Station. So I think they’ve
just done a really good job over the last few years of understanding
what the trends are out there and making sure that we’re up
to date and getting the information out that people want to hear about
and in a way that people like to receive.
It’s changed significantly since Shuttle.
We didn’t talk about Flex Friday, and I understand it’s
the most popular program that you started.
You want to talk about that, and what impact that’s had on JSC?
was a group of folks that had put together a proposal and done some
of the focus group work on that and how it might work here at JSC
real early, I think the first year I was Center Director, and brought
it to me. I know people are always looking for flexibility in their
schedules. People love to work here. They’ll work overtime,
they’ll work crazy hours to get the work done. It’s not
about not wanting to come to work or anything like that. People are
always looking for flexibility.
One of the things that we wanted to be able to offer was this schedule
where you could get every other Friday off, as long as you had 80
hours for a two-week period. Again most people don’t have any
trouble making that but not everybody at the Center can do it. Of
course we have 24/7-hour ops going on on ISS and various other things.
Almost every organization has been able to do something. Even organizations
where they’re like, “Well, we have to staff every Friday
for whatever it is that we do,” they would still say, “Well,
we’ll have half people here on one Friday and half on another
so that we’re still allowing our people to take some flexibility.”
For a lot of folks, people may be working, but they may be working
remotely. They may not be working, because they may have personal
things to do. They may be here but are taking the time where there
are no meetings to do work where you actually need to concentrate
and think. I know I use Flex Fridays when I need to read through things,
I need to think about them. I need to write up something, because
during a normal day there’s just so many meetings that your
time gets broken up and it’s hard to get a big block of time
where you can do that. People actually really appreciate that as well.
This is a day where I may be at work, I may be working, but it’s
a different kind of work than the other days. For all of those reasons
I think people have found it very valuable, both personally and professionally,
to be able to do that.
Then we’ve been able to save a little bit of money in terms
of utilities in buildings. We don’t have all the guard gates
manned, so we’ve been able to save a little money also by doing
We’ve talked about some of your deputies and yesterday you made
an announcement that you would be replaced as Center Director by Mark
Geyer. Did you play any role in that decision? Were you asked by the
new Administrator [James Frederick “Jim” Bridenstine]?
Ochoa: I was
certainly asked by Robert [M.] Lightfoot. He put together a panel
that was headed by Krista [C.] Paquin up at Headquarters to interview.
He also asked me for input as well as they went through that process.
So yes, I did get the chance to make an input.
I was curious about that. One of the things that you had mentioned,
and I’ve heard you mention before, is that as Center Director
you have two goals. One is to accomplish the mission today and for
tomorrow, and then also to take care of JSC’s people. I wonder
if you can give an example for each. What’s the best illustrative
example you can give for those?
Friday is a lot about taking care of your people. You realize that
people need flexibility in their lives and also you want to make sure
you attract and retain really good people here. If other companies
are offering flexible schedules, you want to be the kind of employer
where you are offering those kinds of things as well. To me that’s
about taking care of your people, because people look for that. It’s
also about focusing on mentoring, focusing on inclusion and innovation,
and on appropriate performance feedback and training and development.
All those kinds of things I think are about taking care of your people.
Accomplishing the mission, that’s the whole reason for our existence
here. I think the point I’ve often tried to make as the Center
Director is we have to look at not only today’s missions, the
programs that we support today, but looking well into the future as
well. It’s partly about making sure that we continue to get
exciting work here, that we have the workforce with the right skills
for the future, not just the workforce with skills that we’re
using today. That we have the right facilities, which is both a combination
of we need to get rid of some facilities as well as we may need to
either renovate or build new facilities, whatever it is that the mission
requires in the future. All of those things really come under the
purview of the Center Director, of course always in concert with Headquarters,
but those are all the things that end up being part of what we’re
working on here.
As you look back, is there one thing that you would point to that
was your biggest challenge as Center Director?
Ochoa: I don’t
know. Oh gosh, I think I said in one of the earlier sessions the first
year I was here they had the budget sequestration and then they had
the government shutdown. I was like, “Really, come on people.”
So right off the bat we had to deal with some pretty deep budget cuts,
and then with the shutdown it was hard to maintain some momentum in
the things that we were doing. So just keeping people focused and
on track, and what should we really be working on, and what are those
highest priorities I think was the focus certainly of the first year.
I had started to think about and talk about JSC 2.0, but it was probably
really into the second year when it really had a chance to flourish
a little bit more, after getting through those couple of big things
that happened in 2013.
If you had to point to one thing, do you think that there’s
something you could say, “This was my most significant accomplishment.”
me in 10 years. Because again I don’t think so much about me,
I think about did I leave the Center in a good place, did I help it
move forward, are we well situated to continue to lead human spaceflight
well into the future, are we continuing to attract and retain the
best people. I think in 10 years we’ll be able to look back
and say, “Yes, that happened.” Or maybe not. I think that’s
really when you’re going to be able to look at that, because
a lot of what you’re trying to do is build for the future.
Along those same lines, NASA is going to be celebrating its sixtieth
anniversary coming up. What do you see JSC accomplishing in the next
gosh. It’s always hard to look that far out, but I hope we’re
continuing along the path. So I think we’ll have a big role
to play in gateway as I talked about, really that integrating Center
role that we’ve played in the past. That will allow a variety
of activities on and around the Moon, including NASA astronauts on
the Moon. The plan is still to move on to Mars. To me those are the
things. I’ll go out 20 years maybe instead of 60, because that’s
a really difficult time. That’s really what I see exciting happening
in the next 20 years or so.
I wanted to ask you more of a personal question. There’s so
much focus on your career, really focusing on the fact that you’re
Hispanic and you’re a woman. What are your thoughts on that?
Does that ever bother you, or is that something that you’re
really proud of that you’re the first Hispanic woman in space?
Ochoa: I think
the important thing is to try to show that here at NASA we want everybody.
We want people who are really enthusiastic obviously about space exploration,
who have studied math and science. I say that, of course not everybody
here is a scientist or an engineer. We have a lot of other kinds of
professional people here, but who are interested in supporting space
You want people of all backgrounds to think, “Hey, someday I
could come work for NASA.” So if they see me, and if they see
a variety of different people, men and women, and people of different
racial backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds, and people who grew up
all over the United States, small towns, big towns, every state, went
to all different colleges, then it’s much easier for them to
picture themselves coming here to work for NASA as well. So I think
that’s why there’s been a big focus on my background,
because it is different than the other Center Directors here at Johnson
Space Center, and it helps send that message that there’s not
just one kind of person with one kind of background that works here
at NASA. It’s really quite a diverse workforce.
I just wanted to ask, because you had also brought this up in your
last all-hands meeting. It was about an article that you found as
you were cleaning out your desk.
I have it.
That 2006 article about what we love about JSC. I thought that might
just be nice for you to end on that note. What do you love about JSC?
What are you going to miss?
things that I read were the ones that really struck me, because I
would read them and say, “Well, that’s exactly what I
love about JSC too,” that there’s a feeling of family
here, that teamwork is really important, that we’re all focused
on making the mission successful, that we have friends at work, that
we come here every day and we’re working with our friends. Those
are the things I really love about JSC and that’s why I picked
those particular quotes. Although there was a whole bunch of really
good ones in that article. I had a hard time narrowing it down. I
think I picked four or something.
I think those were all of my questions. I think we did a thorough
job capturing your tenure.
right, thank you.
But I wasn’t sure if there was anything else you might [want
to talk about].
gosh, I don’t know, I can’t even remember what I talked
about in all of our sessions. I don’t know. I’m sure there
are things I should be mentioning that I haven’t thought of.
Maybe we’ll come up to Boise. It’d be a good excuse. Thank
you very much for your time.