Ellen Ochoa, Former NASA Astronaut and First Hispanic Woman in Space, Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

The former Johnson Space Center director logged four space shuttle flights and 1,000 hours in orbit over her 30-year career

President Joe Biden awards Ellen Ochoa the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Ellen Ochoa was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House last week, becoming the tenth astronaut to receive the country's highest civilian honor. Tom Williams via Getty Images

Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to go to space and one of NASA’s most decorated astronauts and leaders, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Friday, the country’s highest civilian honor. Across her 30-year career, Ochoa flew on four space shuttle missions and led operations as director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Ochoa is the tenth astronaut, and second female astronaut, to receive the Medal of Freedom. She was presented the award at the White House along with 18 other honorees, including Jane Rigby, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who played a large role in the James Webb Space Telescope’s mission.

“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,” President Joe Biden said at the ceremony last week. “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.”

Ellen Ochoa sits upside-down in the space shuttle Discovery during an orbit of Earth, June 1999.
Ochoa in the space shuttle Discovery during an orbit of Earth in June 1999. NASA / JSC

Becoming an astronaut wasn’t always what Ochoa envisioned, however. Once, she considered pursuing a career in the flute, an instrument she brought to space and famously played on the flight deck of the space shuttle Discovery in 1993.

“It was the summer right after I finished elementary school when Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon,” Ochoa told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2020. “Of course the whole country was watching, and it was amazing—but you know, honestly, I just could not conceive of that as a career.”

But that later changed as she studied physics at San Diego State University and ultimately earned a PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford University. In 1988, Ochoa became a research engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Two years later, she was selected to be an astronaut.

Her first trip to space was a nine-day journey aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1993. She flew aboard three other space shuttle missions in 1994, 1999 and 2002. Her third trip to space, STS-96, marked the first time a space shuttle docked with the International Space Station (ISS), earning Ochoa the distinction of becoming one of the first people aboard the orbiting laboratory.

woman in white tunnel with some pipes and wiring in tubes on the walls
In June 1999, Ochoa floats through the tunnel connecting STS-96 to the International Space Station. NASA / JSC

On these flights, Ochoa conducted research on Earth’s atmosphere and the sun, once using the space shuttle’s robotic arm to release and retrieve a satellite that collected data on the solar corona. On the ISS, she installed part of the station’s backbone truss and negotiated crew training and protocols with Russian Space Agency leaders.

Ochoa was the 18th American woman—and the 22nd woman in the world—to go to space. She was also the 295th person to move beyond Earth’s atmosphere and the 288th person to enter orbit—where she accrued nearly 1,000 hours, Space.com’s Robert Z. Pearlman reports.

On Earth, Ochoa held a variety of leadership roles at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, ultimately serving as its 11th ever—and second female—director, from 2013 to 2018. She wore the Mission Control headset for two space shuttle launches and returns, and she led the agency through contingency plans and recovery following the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.

All the while, she’s given hundreds of presentations to students and led several initiatives for women in STEM.

“It’s nice to be able to play a role now, especially with students out there who are also of Hispanic background, to show, you know, that the sky’s the limit,” Ochoa told KSAT’s Tiffany Huertas in March. “Or maybe the sky’s not the limit, right? Because, space.”

Ellen Ochoa plays her flute in front of a control panel in the ISS
Ochoa plays her flute on the STS-56 mission, her first trip to space. NASA

Ochoa retired in 2018 after reaching 30 years with NASA. At that time, one of her sons—the youngest of two—had just turned 18, and in a memo shared with her coworkers, she said that it was “a natural point for our family in which to move on to the next phase.”

Receiving the Medal of Freedom was “an unexpected and amazing honor,” Ochoa says in a NASA statement. “I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me.”

Ochoa has also been recognized with NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal.

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