This is one of those stories about Basques that we can call a “long hauler,” and is also the story of an extraordinary woman: the first astronaut of Basque descent, who received an award from President Biden.

We’re speaking of Dr. Ellen Ochoa, who was born in California.  Her grandparents were from Mexico, and she got her BS at San Diego State and her PhD at Stanford.  As an astronaut at NASA, she has almost 1,000 hours in space during four space shuttle voyages; from 2013 until her retirement in 2018, she was the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, aka Mission Control.  Quite an impressive résumé.

Medalla Presidencial de la Libertad
Presidential Medal of Freedom

It’s so impressive that on Friday, May 3, the President of the United States awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest award a civilian can receive in the US.  During the ceremony, 19 people received the same award, including Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives; television pioneer Phil Donahue, and civil rights activist Medgar Evers (find the complete list here).

Now out readers might be wondering why we’re speaking about a Californian with Mexican grandparents on a website dedicated to what the world says about the Basques, or what the Basques do in the world.

The reply is probably fairly easy to guess though, given her surname Ochoa (or as we spell it today, Otxoa).

Surely, if it were just the surname, we would have left it as “at some point she had Basque ancestors” even if she didn’t identify as Basque.  But, fortunately for us, a good friend of our and of the website’s was speaking with her four years ago at an event at Harvard, and he told us how she confirmed to him that she was very aware of her Basque roots and knows she’s of Basque descent.  Plus, she now lives in Boise, so we think it must be hard to live at the “headquarters” of Basque culture in the US, and not feel her sense of belonging to the Basque reinforced there.

It’s easy to understand why the media haven’t referred to her Basque roots.  That Ochoa/Otxoa surname has taken a long route from the Basque mountains to the Space Shuttle, with stops along the way in Mexico and California, which finally led Dr. Ochoa to be the first Basque to travel to space.

But we think it’s worthy of mention.  The small countries that aren’t independent must not miss the opportunity to highlight a single one of its children’s achievements, regardless of whether they or their ancestors were born in the home country, or had to leave their home country at some point over the past few centuries.

NASA – 3/5/2024 – USA

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.

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San Diego Union Tribune -3/5/2024 – USA

Ellen Ochoa, SDSU graduate and first Latina to travel in space, awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa, the San Diego State University graduate who became the first Latina to fly in space, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Biden during a ceremony at the White House.

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Smithsonian Magazine – 7/5/2024- USA

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

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.

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Last Updated on May 17, 2024 by About Basque Country

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