Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday presented the Congressional Space Medal of Honor to two former NASA astronauts at the White House.
Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken were awarded the medals for their “bravery in NASA’s SpaceX Demonstration Mission-2 (Demo-2) to the International Space Station in 2020,” NASA said in a news release. The ceremony marked the first Congressional Space Medal of Honors awarded since 2006.
“For the first time in nearly 17 years, we award the highest civilian honor that our nation can bestow upon our astronauts,” Harris said at the ceremony in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where friends, family and space industry leaders gathered to celebrate the two men.
“Bob and Doug together, have written a new chapter in the history of American space flight,” she added. “Through their ingenuity, and bravery, they have helped rebuild America’s bridge to low earth orbit and to the international Space Station.”
The pair piloted the first crewed launch for SpaceX as part of NASA’s inaugural Commercial Crew Mission to the International Space Station in 2020 – the first astronauts to launch to orbit from the US in nearly a decade and to man a capsule reaching orbit built and launched by the private sector. Five crewed missions have been launched to the ISS carrying 13 American and 7 international astronauts since the 2020 launch, including one in which Behnken’s wife, astronaut Megan McArthur, sat in the same seat he had a year before.
“By partnering with commercial companies to advance their space capabilities, these two, and these families, have enabled NASA to deepen its focus on exploration, to invest in the first commercial space stations, to return American astronauts to the moon through the Artemis program, to go to Mars, and beyond,” said Harris, who chairs the National Space Council as part of her portfolio.
“In the coming years, there is no doubt hundreds of people will fly to orbit in the capsule that they helped to test and build,” the vice president continued.
Hurley, who served in the Marines, and Behnken, who served in the Air Force, were both military test pilots before they joined NASA in 2000. The space agency has a long history of selecting test pilots, who spend hundreds of hours flying around in experimental supersonic aircraft, to be astronauts.
The award recognizes “any astronaut who in the performance of his duties has distinguished himself or herself by exceptionally meritorious efforts and contributions to the welfare of the nation and mankind.” It has been awarded to 28 people, including 17 posthumously, since it was authorized by Congress in 1969, according to a White House official.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Jackie Wattles contributed to this report.