Assembling the International Space Station … and a World at Odds

NASA astronaut and former Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa talks worldwide teamwork and discovery

Purdue University isn’t really a place where a visiting astronaut would have a spotty audience.

True to Boilermaker spirit, Ellen Ochoa — the first Hispanic woman in space and former director of Johnson Space Center — gave her talk on Thursday, Sept. 26, to a packed Purdue Memorial Union ballroom. Ochoa’s presentation, “What IF we led an international space collaboration?” was an Ideas Festival event marking Purdue’s 150th anniversary celebration.

The audience was widely varied: those celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month with the Latino Cultural Center, the Women in Engineering Program, fascinated students from all over campus, community members, families with their kids in tow. It set the tone for an inspiring discussion on successful collaboration among diverse groups.

Ochoa greeted her crowd by congratulating Purdue on its 150th anniversary, and remarked that she knows almost all of the space-related speakers who have offered “What IF?” presentations, in addition to many Purdue alumni. Mark Geyer (the current director of Johnson Space Center), she says, was her deputy for a few years while she was director. She flew with Janice Voss. David Wolf was in NASA’s 13th astronaut class along with her. She knows alum Jerry Ross and his daughter Amy, a NASA engineer and spacesuit expert. Even in her activities as vice chair of the National Science Board, Ochoa says, she’s become acquainted with former president France Córdova.

“So, basically, everybody I meet is from Purdue,” she joked. The room erupted.

From overlooked talent to NASA astronaut

Though Ochoa was the top math student at her high school, no one suggested she continue on that path in college. In fact, as she explored majors at San Diego State University, she spoke with an engineering professor who did little more than express his non-interest in her joining his department. Undeterred, she sought out a physics professor who had a different point of view. He praised her high math scores and said, because of them, he would expect her to do very well.

She did. She finished a physics degree, and having developed a love for research, went straight from there to graduate school at Stanford.

During her first year at Stanford, NASA’s space shuttle program famously launched its first flight. The crew who had trained especially for that flight included the first women and underrepresented minority astronauts. A few years later, Ochoa was glued when she followed Sally Ride’s flight in the news. Ride had been a physics major. She was a woman. She’d graduated from Stanford.

Ochoa saw, for the first time, what she could do.

How the ends justify the scuffles

After her first two flights in space, Ochoa had an additional job at NASA — leading the astronaut office support to the (yet nonexistent) International Space Station (ISS). Partnerships had already been established with Europe, Japan and Canada.

But about a year before she took over the position, the United States and Russia were looking to collaborate on peaceful projects, in response to the end of the Cold War. So, NASA added Russia as a major partner in the space station endeavor.

“Since I represented the crew, we were talking about operations concepts,” she says. “How were we going to select crews multinationally? How and where were we going to train them? What language were we going to train in and speak on board? That started a really interesting time to be a part of that program — to really, from the very beginning, work with other countries to put together the operational concepts.”

The collaboration did not come without its challenges. Not only did they have to own two sets of tools (one in English units and another metric), they had some larger-scale snags as well.

When the two countries were discussing concepts for how the crews would operate once ISS was opened, NASA officials had a concept of what they wanted to see happen. “We had this idea that we’re all going to train on both the American and Russian systems and we’ll work together, like an integrated crew, just like we do on shuttle flights,” she says.

But the Russians had different plans.

“Their whole idea was, ‘You have your side of the station and we have our side.’ And if they wanted to go in between, there would be like this checkpoint Charlie kind of thing,” she says, to laughter. “We just said, ‘We don’t see how we can operate that way.’”

After much discussion and negotiation, the two countries reached a compromise: When they were to begin flights, the plan was to start with smaller crews — three people.  The two agencies decided that it made more sense to follow a plan closer to what the U.S. had in mind with the initial three-person crew. Eventually, when they made the planned move to crews of six, the Russian model made more sense. The moral of the story, to Ochoa, is that it’s possible — and worth the effort — to work toward common ground.

Additionally, she says an essential part of these successful partnerships is being a good team member. In fact, NASA sees it as an essential part of the astronaut selection process. During the last stage of the interview, the candidate sits down and talks with the selection committee for an hour. Whereas most candidates assume that what the committee is looking for is more of the same — their hard skills — Ochoa says they’re looking for more abstract qualities.

“At that point, candidates have passed a lot of hurdles, so the committee actually feels pretty confident in their technical background. What they’re really thinking when they’re sitting there is, ‘Would I want to be stuck in a very small space with this person for a long period of time?’” The crowd was laughing, but her point was heard. On missions, some of them even six months long, there would be no escape. “When it gets down to it, that’s the final thing you want to check off,” she says. “Really understanding how to be a good team member and understanding that the mission is the most important thing is essential.”

And now, we have an International Space Station. Human habitation in space has now occurred continually for 19 years — an entire lifetime for many Purdue students. During those 19 years, more than 1,500 journal publications have come from research conducted at ISS. Hundreds of thousands of images that astronauts took on board are now shared and available. “It’s taught a whole generation what it’s like to see the world from space, without the normal boundaries, in a way you don’t normally see it,” she says.

The world agrees. The ISS crew won the German Westphalian Peace Prize in 2014. At that time, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration, commented to NPR, “The International Space Station is a unique laboratory that has enabled groundbreaking research in the life and physical sciences. The international partnership that built and maintains the Station is a shining example, moreover, of what humanity can accomplish when we work together in peace.”

Losing Columbia

One of Ochoa’s darkest memories from working Earth-side was six weeks after she became deputy director of the organization that manages the astronaut office. Columbia, NASA’s first space-related orbiter in the space shuttle fleet and the one she followed so closely in graduate school, disintegrated on re-entry, killing all seven crew members on board.

An important lesson learned from the Columbia catastrophe was that internal collaboration and communication is essential to the safety of their crews. That tragedy on Feb. 1, 2003, occurred as a direct result of a piece of foam that had dislodged during launch and damaged part of the wing.

“There were people during that mission who were very concerned about what happened (at the launch) and concerned about what might happen on re-entry. A lot of managers never heard from those people, because we didn’t have the right processes in place,” she says. “Not only is it important for innovation and moving forward, but to NASA, it’s incredibly important to the safety of our crews and our assets.”

Ochoa further explains that inclusion — with regard to people of all races, genders, backgrounds, ages, religions and more — is an imperative component of safe, innovative and, therefore, successful collaboration. “We can’t afford to have people at the Center who don’t feel like their contributions are being valued, or don’t feel like they’re welcomed, or don’t feel like they’re an insider. Every person has to feel like they can speak up,” she says.

Somos Purdue

In the end, Antonia Munguia, director of recruiting, retention and diversity at Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute, offered closing remarks to thank Ochoa for visiting. After one student had used their opportunity to inquire anything at all during the Q&A session simply to comment, “You are the coolest astronaut,” it was a perfect reflection of that sentiment when Munguia wrapped the evening by offering Ochoa a T-shirt that read “Somos Purdue,” (“We are Purdue”) in honor of Ochoa’s Hispanic heritage; she also presented her with Polytechnic’s famous “I’m a Techie” shirt.

Ochoa may know a lot of Purdue astronauts and engineers but, as she enthusiastically exclaimed about her gifts, off-mic, “Look, guys, I’m from Purdue, too!”

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