Former NASA Center Director, Scientist to Receive Presidential Medals

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Former NASA Center Director, Scientist to Receive Presidential Medals


President Joe Biden will present Dr. Ellen Ochoa, former center director and astronaut at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Dr. Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, each with the Presidential Medal of Freedom Friday in a ceremony at the White House in Washington.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor award, and these two NASA recipients are among the 19 awardees announced May 3. Ochoa is recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and as the first Hispanic woman in space, and Rigby is recognized for her work on leading NASA’s transformational space telescope.

“I am proud Ellen and Jane are recognized for their incredible roles in NASA missions, for sharing the power of science with humanity, and inspiring the Artemis Generation to look to the stars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Among her many accomplishments as a veteran astronaut and leader, Ellen served as the second female director of Johnson, flew in space four times, and logged nearly 1,000 hours in orbit. Jane is one of the many wizards at NASA who work every day to make the impossible, possible. The James Webb Space Telescope represents the very best of scientific discovery that will continue to unfold the secrets of our universe. We appreciate Ellen and Jane for their service to NASA, and our country.”

Dr. Ellen Ochoa

Ochoa retired from NASA in 2018 after more than 30 years with the agency. In addition to being an astronaut, she served a variety of positions over the years, including the 11th director of NASA Johnson, Johnson deputy center director, and director of Flight Crew Operations.

She joined the agency in 1988 as a research engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, and moved to NASA Johnson in 1990 when she was selected as an astronaut. Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman to go to space when she served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. She flew in space four times, including STS-66, STS-96 and STS-110.

Born in California, Ochoa earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics from San Diego State University and a master’s degree and doctorate in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. As a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories and NASA Ames Research Center, Ochoa investigated optical systems for performing information processing. She is a co-inventor on three patents and author of several technical papers.

“Wow, what an unexpected and amazing honor! I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” said Ochoa upon hearing the news of her Presidential Medal of Freedom award.

During her career, Ochoa also received NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for senior executives in the federal government. She has received many other awards and is especially honored to have seven schools named for her.

Ochoa also is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and formerly chaired both the National Science Board and the Nomination Evaluation Committee for the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.  

Dr. Jane Rigby

Rigby, who was born and raised in Delaware, is honored with the Medal of Freedom for her role in the success of NASA’s Webb mission – the largest, most powerful space telescope launched on Dec. 25, 2021 – as well as her longtime support of diversity and inclusion in science.

She is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. She provides scientific leadership for Webb, which has made pioneering discoveries about the secrets of our universe and inspired the world in its first two years of science operations. Rigby worked on the development of Webb for many years, and subsequently led the characterization of Webb’s science performance, which now is exceeding expectations, and frequently shares the progress of Webb science with the public.

“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,” Rigby said. “I’m so proud and grateful to lead the amazing Webb team.”

Rigby is an active researcher, developing new techniques to better understand how galaxies evolve over time and form stars. She has published 160 peer-reviewed publications and has been recognized with awards such as NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, the Fred Kavli Prize Plenary Lecture from the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and the 2022 LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year from Out to Innovate.

“Thousands of people around the world came together to build Webb,” said Rigby. “The engineers who built and deployed Webb were critical to Webb’s success, and now thousands of scientists around the world are using Webb to make discovery after discovery.” To represent those contributions, in addition to inviting her family to the Medal of Freedom ceremony, Rigby invited her colleague Mike Menzel, Webb lead mission systems engineer at NASA Goddard, and Dr. Kelsey Johnson, president of the American Astronomical Society.

Rigby also serves as a trustee of the AAS and was a founding member of the AAS Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy. She holds a doctorate in Astronomy from the University of Arizona, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Physics, as well as another in Astronomy and Astrophysics from Penn State University.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

Learn more about NASA’s missions at:

https://www.nasa.gov

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Cheryl Warner / Karen Fox
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1600
cheryl.m.warner@nasa.gov / karen.c.fox@nasa.gov

Laura Betz
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
301-286-9030
laura.e.betz@nasa.gov

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