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Astronauts who first flew SpaceX capsule to be honored at White House

Tuesday’s ceremony will be the first time the Congressional Space Medal of Honor is awarded since 2006

NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley, left, and Robert Behnken get ready to fly on a SpaceX test flight to the International Space Station, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 30, 2020. (John Raoux/AP)
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Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the former NASA astronauts who ushered in a new era of space exploration when they flew to orbit aboard a SpaceX rocket in 2020, will be awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony Tuesday.

The little-known award, which was created by Congress in 1969, the year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, is among the most prestigious an astronaut can receive and has been awarded sparingly. The last to earn the decoration was Robert Crippen, who served as the pilot for the first Space Shuttle flight. He was awarded the medal in 2006 by President George W. Bush.

Vice President Harris, who is the head of the National Space Council, will be the one giving the awards.

The award is for astronauts who have distinguished themselves “by exceptionally meritorious efforts and contributions to the welfare of the Nation and of mankind,” according to NASA. The award is given by the White House based upon recommendations from the NASA administrator.

In receiving the award, Behnken and Hurley would be adding their names to a roster of explorers who helped NASA expand its frontiers from the dawn of the Space Age, when the United States was engaged in a Cold War space race with the Soviet Union, through the beginning of the shuttle era. The award has gone to Armstrong; Alan Shepard, the first American in space; John Glenn, the first American in orbit; and Jim Lovell, the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, whose lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded. In all, the decoration has been awarded 28 times, 17 posthumously — to the crew of Apollo 1, who died in a launchpad fire, and the astronauts killed aboard space shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

Traditionally, the decoration is designed to commemorate a first, said Robert Pearlman, a space historian who is the editor of Since the shuttle was in operation for 30 years, “there really weren’t any firsts to be given,” he said, referring to the long gap since the last medal was awarded. “This is sort of dusting off an old award.”

According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, “although the award is a civilian one, it is authorized to be worn as a military decoration.”

The arc of the careers of Behnken and Hurley provide a bridge to NASA’s next chapter of human spaceflight, as the agency embraces the capabilities of the private sector. Both flew on the shuttle — and Hurley was aboard the last shuttle flight in 2011. And their test flight to the International Space Station in May 2020 on SpaceX’s first human spaceflight mission ended an ignominious period after the Shuttle fleet was retired, in which NASA was forced to rely on Russia for rides to the space station.

The flight was the fulfillment of a risky bet by NASA under the Obama administration to entrust the private sector to fly astronauts as part of its “commercial crew” program. Previously, NASA allowed private companies to fly cargo and science experiments to the station. But putting astronauts on vehicles owned and operated by the commercial sector was considered too risky and even reckless — a view that was shared even among NASA’s leadership.

In 2014, however, NASA awarded contracts to Space X and Boeing worth $6.8 billion combined to design and build spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to the station. Along the way, there had been a number of stumbles that delayed the first flights from 2017.

Given the enormous risk of the first flight, NASA turned to two of its most trusted astronauts, whose lives and careers ran along similar trajectories.

Both were former military pilots, who achieved the rank of colonel — Hurley in the Marine Corps, Behnken in the Air Force. Both were accepted to the NASA astronaut class of 2000. Both are fathers who married fellow astronauts. And for all their accomplishments and accolades, both are known in the space industry as simply “Bob and Doug,” who over the years formed a bond that transcended the sometimes competitive nature of the astronaut corps.

During their test mission, they stayed on the station for slightly longer than two months before coming home in SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. The successful splashdown served as a rare bright spot in a year full of turmoil and devastation, from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to the social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing to the clashes between protesters and authorities in cities from Portland, Ore., to Richmond.

The flight was also a triumph for SpaceX, the venture founded by Elon Musk with the goal of lowering the cost of spaceflight and making it routine. Since Behnken and Hurley’s mission, SpaceX has flown five other crews to the space station, a contingent of astronauts from NASA, Europe and even Russia. It also has flown private citizens to orbit, including one all-civilian crew to the station. Boeing, meanwhile, has struggled with the development of its Starliner spacecraft and hopes to launch its first human spaceflight mission to the station this spring.

Still, the success of the program has fundamentally shifted NASA’s human exploration campaigns. Instead of owning and operating the vehicles themselves, the space agency is now willing — eager, even — to partner with the growing commercial space industry.

NASA is now relying on private companies to build commercial space stations to replace the aging ISS. It also is relying on the private sector as part of its Artemis campaign to return astronauts to the lunar surface. Building on its successful mission to the station, SpaceX has already been awarded a pair of contracts to fly NASA’s astronauts to and from the surface of the moon.