Pioneers in space travel and environmental protection were honored Tuesday as President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a pioneering NASA mathematician and the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency who banned DDT.
NASA’s Katherine Johnson and EPA’s William Ruckelshaus were two of the 17 winners, sharing the presentation stage in Washington D.C. with everyone from artists to athletes to activists. The medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Johnson calculated the trajectory for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, with her work so reliable she was asked to check the computer’s calculations on John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth. A preternatural math genius, she finished high school and enrolled in West Virginia College by age 15. Obama praised her for rising above during an era that offered few options for women, black women especially.
“A stressful day for her meant forgetting to carry the one might send someone floating off into the solar system,” Obama said before presenting Johnson’s medal.
“Katherine’s legacy is a big part of the reason that my fellow astronauts and I were able to get to space; it’s also a big part of the reason that today there is space for women and African-Americans in the leadership of our nation, including the White House,” wrote NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement on Johnson’s selection. “The entire NASA family is both proud of and grateful to Katherine Johnson, a true American pioneer who helped our space program advance to new heights, while advancing humanity’s march of progress ever forward.”
Here is the White House’s statement on Johnson’s selection in the winner’s announcement:
“Katherine G. Johnson is a pioneer in American space history. A NASA mathematician, Johnson’s computations have influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle program. Johnson was hired as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA, after they opened hiring to African-Americans and women. Johnson exhibited exceptional technical leadership and is known especially for her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight (first American in space), the 1962 verification of the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer for John Glenn’s orbit (first American to orbit the earth), and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon. In her later NASA career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite and encouraged students to pursue careers in science and technology fields.”
Also honored was William Ruckelshaus, who twice served as head of the EPA as well as acting as director of the FBI and deputy attorney general of the United States.
“Under Bill’s leadershp the EPA developed new clean air standards and banned the harmful pesticide DDT,” Obama said, calling Ruckelshaus’ stewardship a precedent-setting tenure for clean air and water standards. In recent years, Ruckelshaus has led the fight to clean up Puget Sound.
“He has spent life putting country before party or politics and reminds us of how noble public service can be,” Obama said.
Here’s the White House statement on Ruckelshaus’ selection:
“William D. Ruckelshaus is a dedicated public servant who has worked tirelessly to protect public health and combat global challenges like climate change. As the first and fifth Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, he not only shaped the guiding principles of the agency, but also worked diligently to bring the public into the decision-making process. Among the EPA’s key early achievements under his leadership was a nationwide ban on the pesticide DDT and an agreement with the automobile industry to require catalytic converters, which significantly reduced automobile pollution. He also demonstrated his commitment to public service and integrity as Deputy Attorney General. During the Watergate crisis, Ruckelshaus and Attorney General Elliot Richardson chose to resign rather than fire the Watergate special prosecutor. Their principled stance was a pivotal moment for the Justice Department and galvanized public opinion for upholding the rule of law. He continues to advance his legacy of collaborative problem solving in his current role at the University of Washington and Washington State University.”
A full list of the winners can be found on the website for the White House.
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