Washington — On summer evenings in 1963, when darkness fell on Buenos Aires, Argentina, 8-year-old Adriana Ocampo climbed to the rooftops and gazed up at the stars in wonder.
Ocampo was born in 1955 in Barraquilla, Colombia. After moving as a 1-year-old with her family to Buenos Aires, she says, she grew up playing “astronaut instead of dolls.” By 1969, Ocampo was watching on television as U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped off the U.S. Apollo 11 spacecraft to become the first humans to set foot on the moon. Ocampo also watched them on television as their spacecraft returned to Earth. Her teenage dream was that she would someday explore outer space.
Today, Ocampo is program executive for science missions at NASA headquarters in Washington.
It’s been a long journey from Colombia and Argentina to NASA — a journey fueled by determination and love of science. Ocampo said her parents told her and her three sisters that, in life, education is the most important thing. But when she tried to enroll in a public science secondary school in Argentina, administrators turned her away, explaining that the school was only for boys. When her family moved to the United States at the end of 1969, when she was 14 years old, she knew it was the right time to pursue her dreams. Yet, knowing no English, she had to start ”from the ground up,” pursuing her dream as a secondary-school-aged student assigned to middle school until she learned English.
The family’s new home was in Pasadena, California, near NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. During secondary school, Ocampo landed a job at the laboratory and throughout college worked there as a researcher. After earning her master’s degree in geology from California State University, she worked at the laboratory on imaging for the Viking mission to Mars and on navigation and planning for the Voyager mission to the outer planets. She was the first person to recognize that a ring of sinkholes in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico was related to the subsidence of a crater.
Ocampo moved to NASA headquarters in Washington in 1998 and has been responsible for the exploratory Juno mission to Jupiter launched in 2011, the New Horizons mission to Pluto launched in 2006 and expected to reach the planet in 2015, and the Osiris-Rex mission that will launch in 2016 to collect asteroid samples. In addition, Ocampo is lead scientist for the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Venus Climate Orbiter, and NASA’s Venus exploration group.
The space geologist lectures in English and Spanish and answers letters girls send to NASA. As a girl, she sent a letter, in Spanish, to “NASA, Houston, USA” that summarized her interest in space. She was surprised to receive a personal reply. She called it a life-changing experience. In 2004, Ocampo was appointed senior adviser for the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for an earth science initiative.
Ocampo noted that space exploration has provided many results that many people don’t know about. About 60 percent of the things used today were either discovered or perfected for space flights, she said, including thermal clothing, long-shelf-life dried foods, and advances for heart pumps and thermometers. Venus exploration provides greater understanding of global warming and of how hurricanes form.
Ocampo mentors girls and women, in particular through her membership in a professional group called the Latina Women of NASA. “It’s a fantastic career for anyone,” she said. “There still are a lot more discoveries to be made in space exploration.”
More information for kids interested in science and Ocampo is on the National Academies of Science website.