By Mike McClure

When Seaford native Dr. Jane Rigby was a kid she attended space camp in Huntsville, Alabama and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Because of her height (5’ 2”) and with the space shuttle program winding down, when she was in middle school she decided astronomy was the next best thing to being an astronaut. 

Now she has come full circle, working as a senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Last Friday Rigby was one of 19 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C., receiving the award from President Joe Biden. 

Dr. Jane Rigby

“She set high goals and worked to make them work,” said Jane’s father, Wayne, who still lives in Seaford with his wife, Julie.

Rigby was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor award for her work on leading NASA’s transformational space telescope. She received the honor for her role in the success of NASA’s Webb Mission- the largest, most powerful space telescope which was launched on Dec. 25, 2021- as well as her longtime support of diversity and inclusion in science.

“Jane is one of the many wizards at NASA who work every day to make the impossible, possible. The James Webb Space Telescope represents the very best of scientific discovery that will continue to unfold the secrets of our universe,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

Rigby has been part of the team for 15 years, starting as a project scientist and now serving as a senior project scientist. The project has been ongoing for the past 25 years. “She felt humbled about it,” Wayne Rigby said. He said she told President Biden this when he called to offer her the medal. He told her ‘A good team needs a good leader and you’re the leader of the team.’

She is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., providing scientific leadership for Webb, which has been pioneering discoveries about the secrets of our universe and inspired the world in its first two years of science operations. Rigby worked on the development of Webb for many years, and subsequently led the characterization of Webb’s science performance, which now is exceeding expectations, and frequently shares the progress of Webb science with the public.

Around 300 things could have gone wrong during the launch of the Webb Space Telescope that would have dismantled it with no way to repair it. Instead, it has been a success.

“Webb has become a symbol not only of technical excellence and scientific discovery, but also of how much humanity can accomplish when we all work together,” Dr. Rigby said. “I’m so proud and grateful to lead the amazing Webb team. Thousands of people around the world came together to build Webb. The engineers who built and deployed Webb were critical to Webb’s success, and now thousands of scientists around the world are using Webb to make discovery after discovery.” 

In addition to inviting her family, Jane invited Mike Menzel, Webb lead mission systems engineer at NASA Goddard, and Dr. Kelsey Johnson, president of the American Astronomical Society, to the Medal of Freedom ceremony.

Jane and her sister, Elizabeth, were born and raised through the Seaford school system in grades K-12. Their parents were public school teachers.

“Our hats are off for the many teachers that helped her along the way and challenged her along the way,” said Julie Rigby.

Jane played field hockey and softball in high school and was named an all-state player as a field hockey player. She took part in the Academic Challenge program based at Delaware Tech through the University of Delaware parallel program. Through the program she took college level classes, earning her credits in English and Calculus before she attended Penn State University.

“That was a big help for her getting an early start in college,” Wayne Rigby said.

Julie Rigby pointed to the excellent teachers and academic programs her daughters received through public school as part of the reason for their success. Elizabeth is a wildlife biologist for U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Minnesota.

Jane is a true Sussex County girl. She wrote for the former Seaford Leader newspaper and worked for the Auction Block in Laurel for one summer. 

Rigby went on to receive bachelor’s degrees in Physics and Astronomy and Astrophysics and a doctorate in Astronomy from the University of Arizona.

She is an active researcher, developing new techniques to better understand how galaxies evolve over time and form stars. She has published 160 peer-reviewed publications and has been recognized with awards such as NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, the Fred Kavli Prize Plenary Lecture from the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and the 2002 LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year from Out to Innovate. Rigby also serves as a trustee of the AAS and was a founding member of the AAS Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy.

While she no longer lives in Seaford, the Rigbys’ friends have followed her career and achievements. An exhibit on the Webb Space Telescope and Rigby is planned for this summer at Seaford Museum.