Hosting his last Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony Tuesday at the White House, President Barack Obama described this year’s class as “particularly impressive,” citing the diversity and variety of talent exhibited throughout the 21 recipients.
“We’ve got innovators and artists, public servants, rabble rousers, athletes, renowned character actors, like the guy from Space Jam,” President Obama said of Michael Jordan to a laughing crowd. “We pay tribute to those distinguished individuals with our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
The awards recognize especially meritorious contributions to the security or U.S. interests, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
“Everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful, personal way, in ways that they probably couldn’t imagine,” Obama said in the East Room of the White House.
The president then went on to list the distinguished accomplishments of the honorees, striking a noticeable sense of candor and joviality. He highlighted the irony of a young Maya Lin, whose “B+” college design project would become the blueprint for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial on the National Mall. Criticism swarmed Lin, then 21-years-old, when it was revealed that the largely unpopular design belonged to a female Asian American.
In an interview with CBS News’ Jan Crawford, Lin said it was the array of her experiences that helped shape her into a pioneer of architecture and design.
“We have to really urge that we accept people of all races, creeds and gender,” she said. “I think [the medal recipients] all helped contribute in some way to building this America we live in, but also how diverse we are.”
One recipient, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, had to wait outside the White House for a little while -- she forgot her ID.
Ellen DeGeneres ✔ @TheEllenShow
They haven't let me in to the White House yet because I forgot my ID. #NotJoking#PresidentialMedalOfFreedom
12:10 PM - 22 Nov 2016
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But she eventually made it in -- apparently in time for the Medal of Freedom recipients’ mannequin challenge.
There were two basketball players on the list -- one, his hometown star Michael Jordan, and the other Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“Here’s how great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was,” the president declared. “Nineteen-sixty-seven. He had spent a year dominating college basketball. The NCAA bans ‘the dunk’. They didn’t say it was about Kareem, but it was about Kareem. When a sport changes its rules to make it harder just for you, you are really good.”
Abdul-Jabbar told CBS News that it was his racial and religious identity, not his athleticism, that played a prominent role in his life. His greatest inspiration came from great American athletes who encountered similar obstacles and fought for what they believed in--names like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.
“They stood up to give more in-depth meaning to the statement that all men are created equal,” he said. “We don’t have a complete understanding of that yet, so we have more work to do.”
President Obama, according to the Washington Post, has awarded more Presidential Medals of Freedom more than any other American president--nearly 114. Among other 2016 recipients included Robert De Niro, architect Frank Gehry, scientist Margaret Hamilton, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels, Robert Redford, the first chairman of the FCC, Newt Minow, Bill and Melinda Gates, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, inventor Richard Garwin, and Vin Scully.
Margaret Hamilton, Apollo Software Engineer, Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom
Forty-seven years ago, humans first set foot on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission. That success would not have been possible if not for the team of 400,000 people who worked to ensure the success of the mission and the safety of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. One of those 400,000 people was Margaret Hamilton. On November 22, 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Hamilton the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution that led to Apollo 11's successful landing.
The very first contract NASA issued for the Apollo program (in August 1961) was with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop the guidance and navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft. Hamilton, a computer programmer, would wind up leading the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (now Draper Labs). Computer science, as we now know it, was just coming into existence at the time. Hamilton led the team that developed the building blocks of software engineering – a term that she coined herself. Her systems approach to the Apollo software development and insistence on rigorous testing was critical to the success of Apollo. As she noted, “There was no second chance. We all knew that.”
Her approach proved itself on July 20, 1969, when minutes before Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon, the software overrode a command to switch the flight computer’s priority system to a radar system. The override was announced by a “1202 alarm” which let everyone know that the guidance computer was shedding less important tasks (like rendezvous radar) to focus on steering the descent engine and providing landing information to the crew. Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon, rather than aborting the approach due to computer problems. In fact, the Apollo guidance software was so robust that no software bugs were found on any crewed Apollo missions, and it was adapted for use in Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and the first digital fly-by-wire systems in aircraft. Hamilton was honored by NASA in 2003, when she was presented a special award recognizing the value of her innovations in the Apollo software development. The award included the largest financial award that NASA had ever presented to any individual up to that point.
Today, Margaret Hamilton is being honored again – this time at the White House. President Obama has selected her as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The highest civilian award of the United States, it is awarded to those who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
Watch the ceremony live or watch a recording on the official White House Web site.