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NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

May 3, 2024

— The first Hispanic woman to launch into space is now the second female astronaut to be awarded the United States' highest honor.

Ellen Ochoa, who later directed NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, was bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House on Friday (May 3). Ochoa is the tenth astronaut to receive the medal.

"For most, the American dream is to be successful in whatever endeavor you choose here on Earth. For Dr. Ellen Ochoa, her dream was in the heavens," said President Joe Biden, who presided over the ceremony. "Ellen was the first Hispanic woman to go to space, ushering in a whole new age of space exploration and what it means for every generation to reach for the stars."

Individuals chosen for the Presidential Medal of Freedom have significantly contributed to the prosperity, values or security of the United States, world peace or other societal, public or private endeavors, according to the White House.

"Wow, what an unexpected and amazing honor!" said Ochoa, upon first hearing that she was going to be honored, according to a statement issued by NASA. "I'm so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me."

Ochoa was working as a research engineer at NASA's Ames Research Center in California when she was selected with the agency's 13th group of astronauts in 1990. She flew on four space shuttle missions between 1993 and 2002, logging more than 40 days in Earth orbit.

During Ochoa's first flight, STS-56, she used the space shuttle's robotic arm to deploy and retrieve a satellite that observed the solar corona. The mission was devoted to collecting data about the relationship between the sun's energy output and Earth's atmosphere and how those factors affected the planet's ozone layer.

On her subsequent three missions, STS-66, STS-96 and STS-110, Ochoa continued to assist in the study of Earth's atmosphere; she was among the first astronauts to enter the International Space Station; and later helped install a segment of the station's backbone truss.

Ochoa was the 18th U.S. woman to launch into space and 22nd worldwide. She was the 295th person to leave Earth's atmosphere and the 288th to enter orbit, as recorded in the Association of Space Explorers' Registry of Space Travelers.

In 2013, Ochoa was named the 11th director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, home to mission control and the U.S. astronaut corps. Only the second woman to hold the position, Ochoa served for five years, during which she oversaw the selection of the first crews to launch on commercial spacecraft and first yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station.

In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Ochoa has been recognized for her role in the U.S. space program with NASA's highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, and in 2017 was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida. Schools bear her name today in California, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington.

Past recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom include the first American to orbit Earth, John Glenn; the Apollo 11 moon landing crew of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins; Apollo 13 crewmates James Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert; and first American woman in space, Sally Ride.

Other past NASA honorees have included the Apollo 13 mission operations team (including astronaut Edgar Mitchell), "Hidden Figures" mathematician Katherine Johnson and computer programmer Margaret Hamilton, who led the MIT software engineering team that developed the guidance system for the Apollo spacecraft.

Ochoa was honored on Friday alongside 18 other Medal of Freedom recipients, including former Vice President Al Gore, Senators Elizabeth Dole, John Kerry and Frank Lautenberg, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, journalist Phil Donahue and actress Michelle Yeoh.

Also recognized by Biden was Jane Rigby, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who serves as the senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope.

"By unlocking the secrets of the galaxy, Dr. Rigby sparks a sense of wonder deep in our souls," said Biden.

She worked on the development of the orbiting observatory for many years and then led the characterization of Webb's science performance after it was deployed in deep space in 2022.

"Webb has become a symbol not only of technical excellence and scientific discovery, but also of how much humanity can accomplish when we all work together," said Rigby in a statement released by NASA. "I'm so proud and grateful to lead the amazing Webb team."


NASA astronaut and center director Ellen Ochoa is presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Joe Biden during a White House ceremony on Friday, May 3, 2024. (White House)

NASA astrophysicist Jane Rigby shakes hands with President Joe Biden after being presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her leadership role in the Webb Space Telescope. (White House)

Presidential Medals of Freedom on display before the White House ceremony in 2022. (White House/Cameron Smith)

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