NASA astronaut and director Ellen Ochoa awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

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 10th 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.”

Related: Pioneering women in space: A gallery of astronaut firsts

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

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 sun’s outer atmosphere, the 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.

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. (Image credit: White House)

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