The first NASA astronauts to launch on board a commercial spacecraft have been presented with the United States' highest honor reserved for spaceflight veterans.
Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who flew on the first crewed demonstration flight of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft in 2020, received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor from Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday (Jan. 31). Authorized by Congress in 1969, the medal is presented to astronauts who are recommended by the NASA administrator.
"On behalf of President Joe Biden, on behalf of the United States Congress and on behalf of the people of the United States of America ... people you may never meet but who will forever be impacted because of your work forever, it is my great honor to award you both the Congressional Space Medal of Honor," said Vice President Harris.
On May 30, 2020, Hurley and Behnken lifted off on the Crew Dragon "Endeavour" atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Demo-2 (DM-2) crew's 64-day mission to the International Space Station was the first flight under NASA's Commercial Crew Program and SpaceX's first crewed launch.
The mission was also the first human flight to leave Earth from U.S. soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, and Endeavour was the first U.S. crewed spacecraft to splash down from space in the 45 years since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
"Bob and Doug together have written the first page of a new chapter in the history of American spaceflight," said Harris. "Through their ingenuity and bravery, they helped rebuild America's bridge to low Earth orbit and to the International Space Station, where we conduct some of our most significant and advanced scientific research."
Hurley and Behnken are now the 29th and 30th astronauts — out of the more than 360 Americans who have flown into space — to be awarded the Space Medal of Honor and the first to receive the distinction in 17 years. Presented to astronauts who in the performance of their duties distinguished themselves by "exceptionalIy meritorious efforts and contributions to the welfare of the nation and of mankind," the medal was first bestowed in 1978 to six Mercury, Gemini and Apollo veterans.
Among those inaugural honorees were Alan Shepard, the first American to fly into space; John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth; Virgil "Gus" Grissom, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 1 crew; Frank Borman, commander on Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the moon; Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon; and Charles "Pete" Conrad, commander of the first crew to live on Skylab, the first U.S. space station.
Later recipients included Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission; Thomas Stafford, the U.S. commander of the joint Apollo-Soyuz Test Project; John Young and Bob Crippen, the crew of first space shuttle mission; Shannon Lucid, who at the time (1996) held the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman; William Shepherd, the first commander of the International Space Station; and the fallen Apollo 1, STS-51L (space shuttle Challenger) and STS-107 (Columbia) crew members, who died in 1967, 1986 and 2003, respectively.
Selected to become astronauts in 2000, both Hurley and Behnken flew on two space shuttle missions before launching on DM-2. Hurley flew as pilot on the final shuttle mission and Behnken served as chief of the astronaut office from 2012 to 2015. Hurley left NASA in July 2021, followed by Behnken 16 months later.
"The courage, the commitment, the brilliance, the vision, the ability to see and understand what is possible and then to go for it represents the best of who we are as a nation, and in that way you two inspire all of us," said Harris. "You serve as a real example of the power of the ambition and the aspirations of our nation."
Hurley and Behnken were joined at the White House by their families, including wives Karen Nyberg and Megan McArthur.
"As many of you probably know, for both Bob and Doug, space is a bit of a family business," said Harris. "Doug's wife, Karen, has made multiple trips to the International Space Station, and Bob's wife, Megan, helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope."
"So it turns out it takes a whole family to do the kind of work that you all have done to allow us to explore the universe," the vice president said.
The Congressional Space Medal of Honor is the third-highest award an astronaut can receive, under the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor and Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is separate from the military Medal of Honor, which is bestowed for extreme bravery and gallantry in combat.