Astronaut Visits Pratt and Plugs Human Spaceflight

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa, an engineer and veteran of four space shuttle flights, visited Duke as guest of the Pratt School of Engineering Feb. 27 and responded to critics of NASA’s human spaceflight program by saying robots have their role as explorers but cannot match the intelligence and ingenuity of humans in space.

“Obviously we think human spaceflight is very important,” Ochoa told a large audience of students, faculty and children in the Levine Science Research Center’s Love Auditorium. “That’s what we have chosen to spend our careers doing.”

Ochoa, 45, told of her educational background – she has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford – and described her adventures in space, complete with a film of her 2002 mission to the International Space Station. She talked about the value of people in space during a question and answer session when someone asked what she thought about the arguments of “naysayers” who say human spaceflight is not worth the cost and risk.

“There are just so many things that you can take back from an experience when you’ve been out there doing it yourself,” she said. “Clearly we need to be sending robotic missions to Mars as we are doing right now. You can answer a lot of scientific questions through robotic exploration, but there are a lot of things so far that robots can’t do Â…”

She said, for example, that people can identify and fix equipment problems that would stump a robot or its handlers millions of miles back on Earth. And, she said, humans can answer questions, both in terms of recovering from failures of equipment to answering questions in more detail and respond to new questions generated by data and images sent back to Earth.

“There’s much more of a capability to respond to those during a mission as opposed to planning another mission, which might take five years robotically. And there’s just so much of a human element. As excited as people are about (the automated Mars rovers) Spirit and Opportunity, they’re not coming back, they’re not going to be going around talking to audiences about their experiences and that is a big part of what we do at NASA.

“We’re very, very committed to the educational aspects of our job. All the astronauts go out and speak to schools all over the country, even outside the United States. In a lot of cases, we’re talking to elementary, middle school and high school students. We’re talking to them about the importance of math and science education. You have that entree as an astronaut. You’re in a position where students will listen to you. They are interested and excited about the subjects you’re talking about.”

Ochoa, who flew twice each on the shuttles Discovery and Atlantis, did not mention the Earth-return accident that killed the crew of the shuttle Columbia a year ago, but did say astronauts are enthusiastic about the moon and Mars exploration goals established by President Bush in January. Under Bush’s plan, the remaining three shuttles will be retired by 2010.

“I think in general we’re very excited at NASA to have a new vision because we haven’t had one for a long time,” Ochoa said in reply to another question. “I think most people joined NASA with the expectation that we would be going to Mars some day and probably back to the moon.

“Obviously there’s a little sadness in thinking about the shuttle not being there because that’s what we’ve been doing for the last more than 20 years. It is a very extraordinary vehicle. And when we do retire it, there will be things we won’t be able to do. We won’t be able to go up and repair the Hubble space telescope or other observatories, we won’t have the capability to do the kind of building in space that we do now with the shuttle.

“But I think it’s time to move on. People are enthusiastic about the new vision. Obviously it’s going to take some time before we really flesh it out. Hopefully, it will lead to bigger and better things for NASA.”

Not all the questions were as serious. One little girl asked what food tasted like in space.

“I think it tastes very good,” Ochoa replied. “We have spaghetti and meatballs, we have macaroni and cheese -- my kids’ favorite -- and we beef steaks and pork chops. No bones, of course because you can’t actually use silverware so you just have to take bits off it while you’re holding it a package Â…”

“For breakfast we have oatmeal and egg dishes. I always found the scrambled eggs a little hard to eat. It was hard with the eggs to get just the right amount of water so they weren’t too soggy or too dry. If it’s too dry, it breaks into a thousand little egg pieces before it makes it to your mouth and you have to wipe up scrambled eggs floating all over the place.”

Ochoa, who knew Pratt Dean Kristina Johnson while both studied at Stanford, is now deputy director of flight crew operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She was selected to the astronaut corps in 1990 and has logged has logged over 978 hours in space. She also is the mother of two, is a classical flutist and a private pilot.

Ochoa’s NASA awards include the Exceptional Service Medal (1997) and the Outstanding Leadership Medal (1995). She is also the recipient of numerous other awards, including the Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award, the Hispanic Engineering Albert Baez Award for Outstanding Technical Contributions to Humanity, and the Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award.