Behnken, Harris and Hurley
Former NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley stand with Vice President Kamala Harris after she awarded them the Congressional Space Medal of Honor at a Jan. 31 ceremony: Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WASHINGTON — The two men who flew on the first NASA commercial crew mission to the International Space Station in 2020 received a rarely awarded medal from the White House Jan. 31.

During a brief ceremony, Vice President Kamala Harris awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor to former NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in recognition of their flight on the Demo-2 Crew Dragon mission to the station in 2020, the first crewed orbital spaceflight from the United States since the retirement of the shuttle in 2011.

She credited Behnken and Hurley not just for flying the mission but for years of work leading up to it, advising SpaceX as it developed the spacecraft. “Together, Bob and Doug, and the SpaceX team, worked for years to design a new crew capsule,” she said. “Every part of the capsule, from flight controls and emergency procedures to computer displays and cockpit layout, all of that was shaped by Bob and Doug’s decades of knowhow.”

The successful two-month Demo-2 mission allowed NASA to begin a series of regular crew rotation flights on Crew Dragon, ending reliance on Russia’s Soyuz vehicle for accessing the station. “Bob and Doug together have written the first page of a new chapter in the history of American spaceflight,” Harris said. “Through their ingenuity and bravery, they have helped rebuild America’s bridge to low Earth orbit and to the International Space Station.”

While Harris serves as chair of the National Space Council, which oversees interagency coordination of space policy, she didn’t address other space issues in her remarks beyond a passing reference to NASA’s Artemis campaign of lunar exploration. Neither Behnken nor Hurley spoke during the public ceremony.

The award took some in the space community by surprise in part because the award is so rare. The last time an astronaut received the medal was Robert Crippen, best known as the pilot of the first shuttle mission, in 2006. NASA announced that Behnken and Hurley would receive the medal less than 24 hours before the ceremony, and neither the agency nor the White House offered details on why they received the award now or if the White House anticipated making additional awards.

Despite the name, Congress is not involved in the award of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Congress passed a law in 1969 authorizing the president to award a medal by that name “to any astronaut who in the performance of his duties has distinguished himself by exceptionalIy meritorious efforts and contributions to the welfare of the Nation and of mankind.” Formal nominations for the award are made by the NASA administrator to the president.

While the law creating the medal passed in 1969, the first medals were not awarded until 1978 by President Jimmy Carter. Six astronauts, including the first American in space, Alan Shepard; the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn; and the first human to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, received medals then.

Seventeen of the now 30 awardees were posthumous: the three astronauts who died on Apollo 1 and the seven each lost on Challenger and Columbia. President George W. Bush awarded the medal most frequently, although 14 of his 16 recipients were the crews of Challenger and Columbia. The other two awardees were Crippen and Bill Shepherd, the first American to fly a long-duration mission on the ISS.

Several famous astronauts have not received the award, including Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins. While Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, received the medal in 1995, his crew mates, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, did not.

Both Behnken and Hurley left the astronaut corps after the Demo-2 mission. Hurley retired from NASA in July 2021 and is now director for business development for Northrop Grumman’s propulsion systems business unit. Behnken retired from NASA in November 2022 and joined Lockheed Martin’s space division as director of technology acceleration.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...