Monday, September 29, 2014

Latin@ Heritage Month - Latinas in Space!

This is the first in a four-part series of posts about Latinas working in the Space Industry. You can read posts two, three, and four. There is only one Latina who has gone to space (so far), but there are many more working on the ground as engineers and scientists with NASA. Their stories are just as important and inspiring for young women looking at a career in STEM. And, as we saw in the recent LatinaStyle article, we desperately need more young Latinas in STEM careers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a million new jobs are created every year in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math–better known as STEM– and by 2022 there will be nine million STEM jobs available. Although the U.S. Census Bureau states that Latinos are the largest growing minority group in the country, labor statistics demonstrate that Latinas only have two percent of all the STEM jobs currently in the U.S.; it remains a field dominated by white males.
I don't intend this to be an exhaustive list by any means. Simply an opportunity to highlight some of the amazing women working in the space program.

Ellen Ochoa
Ellen Ochoa was the first Latina in space. But that's only one of her many achievements in her career with NASA.

She grew up at a time when space exploration was just beginning. She excelled in school, in both the arts and sciences, but as as a girl she never dreamed of becoming an astronaut herself. She actually thought she'd grow up to be a professional musician. It wasn't until her friends encouraged her to take a closer look at Physics as an option.

She was hooked. Her love of math and science became her route to trying to figure out the world around her. She earned a BS in Physics from SDSU, and then a MS and PhD in engineering from Stanford. It was while she was studying at Stanford that Sally Ride joined the astronaut team, and a whole new world opened up for young women like her. She immediately began pursuing a career with NASA, joining the NASA research team studying optical systems. In fact, she is a co-inventor on three patents relating to optical systems.

In January 1990, she was selected by NASA for the astronaut program. Her first flight was aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1993. By the time she returned from her last mission she'd logged almost 1000 hours in space.

In 2002, she became Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations, and in 2006, she was promoted to Director. She has also served as the Chief of Intelligent Systems Technology at Ames Research Center. But most recently, in January 2013, she became the first Latina and second woman to be appointed as Director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

In addition to being the head of Johnson Space Center, she is also a classically trained flutist and a private pilot.
“I am committed to space flight, human exploration, learning how to do more and more. I like the fact that it is much bigger than myself, important to my country and to the world. I like being able to contribute in this way.”
Ellen Ochoa biography on Wikipedia
Ellen Ochoa biography on NASA website
Ellen Ochoa profile on American Physical Society website

Serena Auñón
Serena Auñón is the second Latina to become a NASA astronaut.

Serena Auñón earned a BS in Electrical Engineering at George Washington University, and then an MD at the University of Texas Health Science Center in 2001. That might seem like an abrupt change in course. She explains she wanted to be able to apply the critical thinking skills she learned as an engineer to helping people. Medicine is her passion. She served her two residencies in internal medicine and aerospace medicine. She also earned a Master of Public Health degree in 2006.

She joined NASA as a flight surgeon, and in 2009 was selected as an astronaut candidate. Although she has yet to have her chance at space travel, she is a key person on the support team for the latest group of astronauts and cosmonauts heading to the International Space Station. She uses her medical expertise to support astronauts in space as well as helping to design equipment and technology.

In 2012, she piloted a DeepWorker 2000 submersible as part of a NASA/NOAA NEEMO 16 underwater exploration mission off the coast of Florida.
"Always follow your passion. If you go down a path you think others want you to follow, you'll be miserable. What you love is your passion, and everything else will work out."
Serena Auñón biography on Wikipedia
Serena Auñón piece on

Candy Torres
Candy Torres is a strong advocate for girls, and especially Latinas, pursuing a career in STEM.

She grew up in South River, New Jersey. She knew early on that she wanted to be an astronaut, but being a Puerto Rican girl in the '60s, that wasn't necessarily in the stars. She had to confront the prejudices of the day, but she was determined to not let it get in her way. While she waited for her chance, she devoured as much science fiction as she could to keep her dream alive. She was mesmerized by the use of technology to solve problems in shows like SuperCar, Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, and, of course, Star Trek.

At the age of 14, she joined the Civil Air Patrol where she learned marching, drilling and wilderness survival. Oh, and she learned to fly a plane. She graduated from high school in 1971, and attended classes at Douglas College (now part of Rutgers), where she managed to cobble together a self-made major in space sciences from classes in vastly different fields such as geology, engineering, and astronomy. It was her professor in astronomy that helped her land her first job after graduation, working on the Copernicus OAO-3C Satellite at Princeton. From there, she was hired to convert large data files for NASA. The work was being done by hand, and was time consuming and quite boring. Torres, ever the innovator, taught herself FORTRAN so she could write a program to do the conversions in a more systematic way.

In 1983, she drove for 21 hours to be on site when Sally Ride made her historic journey into space. She knew that this would be an important opening for other young women to join the space program. And then, only a few weeks later, she was offered her dream job: a contractor position with McDonnell Douglas working on the software for the Space Shuttle program. Since then, she has also worked on projects supporting the International Space Station.
"I had a very curious mind, and I was not willing to let go of that."
Candy Torres biography on
Candy Torres biographical piece on CNN
Candy Torres piece in The Atlantic

Dr. Nitza Margarita Cintrón
Dr. Nitza Margarita Cintrón is the chief of NASA Johnson Space Center Space Medicine and Health Care Systems Office. What started out in 1979 as a two year plan to create the Biochemistry Laboratory turned into a full-fledged career spanning three decades.

Born in Puerto Rico, she traveled often during her childhood, following her Army father around the world. After his retirement, the family settled in Puerto Rico, where she excelled in school, and was a self-driven learner when it came to the sciences and math. Even at an early age, she dreamed of being a scientist. She earned a BS in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico, and in 1972 entered the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, earning her PhD there in 1978.

She applied to the Astronaut Corps and passed the finals, but poor eyesight limited her to earth-bound work. But it was her academic credentials that impressed the folks at NASA, and they offered her a position as a NASA scientist. In addition to her work on the Biochemistry Laboratory, she also served as the project scientist on the Space Lab 2 mission as part of the shuttle Challenger launch in 1985.

NASA sponsored her studies at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where she graduated in 1995 with her MD, specializing in internal medicine. She was named the director of the Life Sciences Research Laboratories in support of medical operations, a position that enabled her to continue to focus on both the science and medical aspects of space travel.

She was awarded the Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, the highest science honor given by NASA. And in 2004, she was inducted into the Hispanic Engineer's National Achievement Awards Conference Hall of Fame in Los Angeles.
"In everything you do, always do you very best, be your very best. Everyone has skills and talents, and if you do your very best with them, you will always be a winner."
Nitza Margarita Cintrón biography on Wikipedia
Nitza Margarita Cintrón biography on Latina Women of NASA


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