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Commencement Speaker Shares the Value of Higher Education

Ellen Ochoa of La Mesa, Calif., made history a decade ago when she became the first Latina astronaut in space. Before and since, she has been an example of how persistence can pay off in the world of science, especially for women. At WPI's commencement ceremonies on May 17, Ochoa will describe how her passion for learning propelled her into space.

"I always liked school," she says, "and being an astronaut allows you to learn continuously. One flight, you're working on atmospheric research; the next, it's bone density studies or space station design."

Ochoa completed her doctorate in optical computer research at Stanford after earning a physics degree and top honors from San Diego State University. In 1990 she was selected as an astronaut, one of 23 from a pool of 2,000.

On her first space mission, Ochoa operated the Discovery space shuttle's remote manipulator system, to deploy and capture a satellite that studied the solar corona. Her second mission, in 1994, involved analyzing how changes in the sun's irradiance affect the earth's climate.

Ochoa flew aboard Discovery for a third time in the spring of 1999 on a 10-day mission to complete the first docking to the international space station. In April of last year, her crew delivered and installed the S-Zero truss to the International Space Station and used the station's robotic arm to maneuver space walkers for the first time.

Based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, Ochoa is currently deputy director of flight crew operations, managing and directing the Astronaut Office and Aircraft Operations divisions.

Ellen Ochoa will be accepting an honorary doctor of science degree from WPI at Commencement. Also receiving honorary degrees are Joseph F. Dobronski '49, retired naval aviator and test pilot and former director of flight test and operations for McDonnell Aircraft, and Ray H. Witt, chairman and CEO of CMI-Management Services Inc. in Smithfield, R.I., who provided the founding gift for the Ray H. Witt Metalcasting Center at WPI.

An honorary degree for Sheila E. Widnall, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and former secretary of the U.S. Air Force, will be announced at Commencement, but presented at a separate event later in the year. Widnall was recently named to the NASA commision investigating the space shuttle Columbia accident.

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Last modified: Sep 02, 2004, 10:04 EDT
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