Crossing the Lines

Ellen Ochoa’s paternal grandparents came to America from Mexico.  She was raised in California and received a physics degree at San Diego State University.  She later received MS and PhD degrees in Electrical Engineering from Stanford.

Ellen’s research interests were in optical systems applications in space.  She has earned three patents for her work.  Ellen crossed over from the research side of space travel to becoming an astronaut.  She had administrative duties as well as being prepared for going into space.  Because of her technical background, she would often provide the astronaut’s perspective on new technologies being developed.

Ellen became the first Hispanic woman to go into space on a mission to conduct research on the ozone layer.  In total, she served on four missions and spent almost 1,000 hours in space.

Ellen was at Mission Control when the Columbia disaster occurred.  She served as a NASA spokesperson during this difficult time.

When Ellen retired from being an astronaut, she took on a number of administrative assignments within NASA.  These included being responsible for the astronaut office as well as becoming the Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.  She was the first Hispanic and second woman to serve in this role.

During Ellen’s career, she crossed the lines twice:

  • From researcher to astronaut (studying to performing)
  • From astronaut to administer (performing to managing)

While these transitions may seem natural, they are not.

Many people who are excellent in extending theoretical knowledge are not good at practicing or applying their theories.  Great researchers are rarely great at the hands-on side of their discipline.  Those who are excellent at doing are not good at managing others who are doers.  Great athletes are rarely great coaches.  Crossing the lines can be tough, but think about what we expect of our employees.

We expect high GPA students to become outstanding practitioners.  Then we often promote our best practitioners to be managers.  Often when we expect people to cross the lines, the result is not good.

What made Ellen so successful in accomplishing this?  Perhaps it’s because she had been doing this for most of her life.  She was a flautist in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and had won awards for her performance.  She crossed the lines between the creative side and the analytical side.  Maybe learning how to cross the line from music to science helped when she was asked to cross the line in her career.

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“Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars.” – Ellen Ochoa

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