National Memorial Day Parade 2023 honors Apollo astronauts in US capital (video)

Three Apollo lunar module pilots were joined by an active member of the U.S. astronaut corps and a former NASA administrator as they helped lead the National Memorial Day Parade today (May 29) in Washington, D.C..

Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke and Apollo 17 geologist Harrison Schmitt were honored as this year's grand marshals. The three "Legends of Apollo" were accompanied by Randy "Komrade" Bresnik, a shuttle mission specialist and space station commander who is helping to lead NASA's return to the moon as part of the Artemis program

"What moments in history have inspired us more than the Apollo missions to the moon?" said Tim Holbert, president of the American Veterans Center, which organizes the annual National Memorial Day parade. "As we remember those lost, honor those who have come before and inspire new generations to strive forward, there are no better living symbols to spotlight than the legends of Apollo. It is a tremendous honor to have them with us."

Apollo astronauts Charlie Duke, Harrison Schmitt and Rusty Sweickar on a float in the National Memorial Day Parade.

Apollo astronauts Charlie Duke, Harrison Schmitt and Rusty Sweickart join active NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik on the grand marshals float in the National Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 29, 2023 in Washington, D.C.. (Image credit: American Veterans Center)

Former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, a four-time space shuttle astronaut, also spoke before the start of the parade.

"We would lose the valiant Apollo 1 crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee in a dreadful fire in the crew module on the launch pad on January 27 1967, just a month prior to their scheduled launch. They are among the 1000s of servicemen and women we celebrate and remember on this solemn Memorial Day," said Bolden. "Despite the setback, however, we would go on to launch the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969 and land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface on July 20 1969, fulfilling President Kennedy's promise of landing on the moon before the end of the decade."

"Our three grand marshals for today's parade — Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9; Charlie Duke, Apollo 16; and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, Apollo 17 — are the embodiment of that unflappable spirit of exploration, a spirit that finds our nation again today, preparing to return humans to the moon with the crew of the Artemis 2 mission slated for launch in just over two years," Bolden said. 

Presented by Boeing, the parade proceeded down a rainy Constitution Avenue in the nation's capital beginning at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT). You can also watch a replay of parade here on and on YouTube.

Related: NASA's 17 Apollo moon missions in pictures

Former NASA astronaut and administrator Charlie Bolden, a retired major general in the U.S. Marine Corps, speaks at the 2023 National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C.. (Image credit: American Veterans Center)

In March 1969, four months before the Apollo 11 crew became the first to walk on the moon, the Apollo 9 crew of Schweickart, commander Jim McDivitt and command module pilot David Scott tested the complete Apollo spacecraft — including the lunar module used to land on the moon — in Earth orbit. In addition, Schweickart became the first Apollo astronaut to perform a spacewalk, testing the program's new spacesuit, including the portable life support system backpack that was used by later astronauts to explore the lunar surface. 

Before becoming an astronaut, Schweickart served in the U.S. Air Force and Massachusetts Air National Guard (101st Tactical Fighter Squadron), logging more than 4,000 hours of flight time, including 3,500 hours in high performance jet aircraft.

After serving as capcom in Mission Control for the Apollo 11 landing, Duke became the 10th and youngest person (to date) to walk on the moon when he and Apollo 16 commander John Young landed in the Descartes Highlands in April 1972. The second crew to have use of the Apollo lunar roving vehicle or "moon buggy," Duke and Young conducted three excursions on the moon over the course of their 71 hours and 14 minutes on the surface.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Duke joined the Air Force, serving at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia and with the 526th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Ramstein Air Base in West Germany. After graduating from the Aerospace Research Pilot School in 1965, he stayed on as an instructor. As a lieutenant colonel (later promoted to brigadier general), Duke left a medallion marking the 25th anniversary of the Air Force on the moon.

Heidi Grant, President of Boeing Business Development/Defense, Space, Security & Global Services, is flanked by Apollo 17 geologist Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke, Apollo 9 lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart and active NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik at the 2023 National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C.. (Image credit: American Veterans Center)

Schmitt was the first scientist and last man (to date) to step off a lunar module onto the surface of the moon. A professional geologist who first helped other astronauts become familiar with the rocks and soil types they would encounter on the moon, he touched down in the Taurus-Littrow valley with Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan in December 1972. In addition to finding orange soil of volcanic origin on the moon, Schmitt helped set several records, including the greatest distance from a spacecraft during an extravehicular activity and the largest return of lunar samples to date.

Schmitt did not serve in the military, though after his selection as an astronaut, he spent a year with the Air Force undergoing undergraduate pilot training. He was later elected to the U.S. Senate representing the state of New Mexico from 1977 to 1983.

Three "Apollo Legends" served as the grand marshals for the 2023 National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C.. From left to right: Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke, Apollo 17 geologist Harrison Schmitt and Apollo 9 lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart. (Image credit: The American Veterans Center)

Bresnik is a retired colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was designated a naval aviator in 1992 and graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School before flying combat missions in support of Operation Southern Watch and Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a NASA astronaut, Bresnik flew twice to the International Space Station; first as a mission specialist on space shuttle Discovery  in 2009 and then as a flight engineer on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. In addition to commanding the Expedition 53 crew, Bresnik logged 32 hours conducting five spacewalks.

The National Memorial Day Parade also featured veteran and celebrity chef Robert Irvine, and award-winning actors Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise (Sinese portrayed astronaut Ken Mattingly in the 1995 feature film "Apollo 13"). The United States Air Force Band performed, as will special musical guests Andy Grammer, Colbie Caillat and Craig Morgan.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin has taken part in previous years' National Memorial Day parades, as pictured here. (Image credit: National Veterans Center)

The American Veterans Center reintroduced the tradition of a Memorial Day parade along Constitution Avenue in 2005, decades after it had faded away during the Second World War. It has since grown into the largest Memorial Day event in the United States.

This is the first year that astronauts have served as grand marshals, though not the first time they have appeared in the parade. Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin previously took part in several years' parades, most recently in 2016.

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Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.