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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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1st Latina astronaut to go to space surprised by a ‘Reach for the Stars’ in Pasco


KENNEWICK — It was a nerve-racking moment for Pasco teacher Allen Madsen and his orchestra students.

With hundreds of students packed into the Ochoa Middle School gymnasium and with a special guest in attendance, Madsen and his 112-student musical troupe premiered a special orchestral arrangement.

“Reach for the Stars” is a song Madsen wrote for his students — based on a quote from Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to go to space.

Tuesday, Madsen’s students got to perform it live for her.

“I was surprised. It was a wonderful feeling,” said Ochoa, who also is a flautist.

The trailblazing astronaut returned to her namesake school in Pasco this week for a special assembly. She spoke about her career, her love of education and encouraged students to continue trying new things.

As she does each time she visits the school, Ochoa also picked up a flute to perform the “Ochoa Fight Song” alongside band students.

Role model for women, Hispanic youth

Ochoa stands as a role model for Hispanic students, young women and aspiring scientists looking at careers in STEM fields.

The student body at Ellen Ochoa Middle School is 93% Latino, according to data from OSPI. And roughly 94% of students have been identified as low-income, too.

School Principal Jackie Ramirez said Ochoa’s support and involvement with the students “exemplify the importance of education and ambition.”

This was her fifth visit, her last was in 2015. There are six other schools named for her in California, Texas and Oklahoma.

But the Pasco school, which opened in 2002, was the first.

“I was so thrilled 20 years ago or so to have this school named after me, just given how important education was to me and for me to eventually have this career,” she told the gym full of attentive students.

Ochoa, 65, said there were no women-of-color astronauts or aerospace engineers when she was young, and she never really thought that was a choice for her at a young age. The Apollo 11 moon landing didn’t happen until she was in middle school.

“What you know about in middle school doesn’t define your future at all, but working hard and taking lots of different classes is something that will give you a lot of options as you go through life,” she told students.

A storied career

Ochoa is a retired NASA astronaut and was the 11th director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

During her career, she spent nearly 1,000 hours in space across four shuttle missions from 1993 to 2002. She was the first Hispanic woman to travel to space and NASA’s first female Hispanic astronaut.

She is the granddaughter of Mexican-American immigrants who came from Sonora, Mexico.

Born and raised in California, Ochoa earned a bachelor’s in physics from San Diego State University and a master’s and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University.

She joined NASA in 1988 as a research engineer and moved to the Johnson Space Center in 1990 where she was selected as an astronaut after two attempts.

She’s also been recognized with NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for senior executives in the federal government.

Ochoa currently lives in Boise, Idaho, where she and her family enjoy hiking, traveling and attending performances of the Boise Philharmonic.

Despite all her accolades, Ochoa said having public schools named after her has been the highest honor.

Music and education has played a big role in her life. It’s what helped her discover her love of the world and led her to being a NASA astronaut.

Students should continue to dream big and “reach for the stars,” she said.

“Education is important. Each week and in each class, it’s an opportunity to learn something new and to apply yourself,” she said. “It really just opens up a lot of options.”