Duluth native reaches NASA heights

Duluth native James Sponnick has received the highest honor NASA gives someone who is in the private sector.

Sponnick, a 1978 Duluth East graduate, received the Distinguished Public Service Medal at this year’s NASA Kennedy Space Center Honor Awards, according to the website SatNews.

It is given to someone whose “contribution is so extraordinary that other forms of recognition by NASA would be inadequate,” SatNews reported.

Sponnick, who is vice president of mission operations for United Launch Alliance, was honored for his commitment in launching five NASA missions in the last six months of 2011, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

That included the Nov. 26 launch of an Atlas V carrying the Mars Science Laboratory that landed on Mars last month.

Sponnick has had a career of more than 30 years in space missions and has been involved in more than 130 rocket launches, according to a News Tribune story last December.