Bob and Doug Receive Congressional Space Medal of Honor from VP Harris

Bob and Doug Receive Congressional Space Medal of Honor from VP Harris

The astronaut duo who flew the first Crew Dragon to orbit and became affectionately known to the public simply as Bob and Doug accepted the Congressional Space Medal of Honor from Vice President Kamala Harris today at the White House. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley retired from NASA and now work in the aerospace industry, but will go down in history for restoring America’s ability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil nine years after the final space shuttle flight.

Harris, who chairs the White House National Space Council, presented the medals in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House.

L-R: Bob Behnken, Vice President Kamala Harris, Doug Hurley. Screengrab.

The Congressional Space Medal of Honor was created in 1969 to recognize “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.”

Only 28 people have received the medal, of which 17 were the astronauts who died in the Apollo 1, Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia tragedies that NASA is commemorating right now. The 20th anniversary of the February, 1, 2003 Columbia disaster is tomorrow.

Bob Crippen, pilot of the first space shuttle mission in 1981, STS-1, was the most recent recipient in 2006. Others include John Young, who commanded that first shuttle mission; Alan Shepard, the first American in space; John Glenn, the first American in orbit; Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the Moon; Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11 and the first American to set foot on the Moon; Jim Lovell, commander of the Apollo 13 mission that barely survived the explosion of the Service Module enroute to the Moon; Pete Conrad, commander of the first Skylab mission; Tom Stafford, commander of the Apollo-Soyuz Test project; Shannon Lucid, who at the time held the record for longest duration by an American female astronaut; and Bill Shepherd, commander of the first ISS mission, Expedition 1.

Bob and Doug became household names in 2020 as they flew the test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the first spacecraft developed through a public-private partnership between the government and the private sector instead of a traditional fixed-price contract. Dubbed Demo-2 (Demo-1 was an uncrewed flight), they lifted off on May 30 and splashed down on August 2 after spending the intervening time on the ISS.

Hurley was the pilot of the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, in 2011. All U.S. astronauts who visited the ISS between then and Demo-2 made the trip on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. NASA paid as much as $90 million to Russia per seat for those flights.

Space Shuttle Atlantis and the crew of STS-135, the final space shuttle mission (L-R): Chris Ferguson, Sandy Magnus, Doug Hurley and Rex Walheim. Photo Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Of the five spaceflight-worthy space shuttles, it was Endeavour that made the last flight. Hurley and Behnken christened their Crew Dragon with the same name.

Crew Dragon Endeavour splashes down in the Gulf of Mexico ending the Demo-2 test flight and safely returning NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to Earth, August 2, 2020. Screengrab.

In an interview with NBC News, they acknowledged they were flying a vehicle built by a company that had never sent humans to space before, but “we knew the system, we trusted the folks that were building the system.”

Hurley is married to retired NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg who spent a total of 180 days on the ISS in 2008 and 2013. Behnken is married to NASA astronaut Megan McArthur who repaired the Hubble Space Telescope on STS-125 and a year after his flight on Crew Dragon sat in the pilot’s seat for her own trip to the ISS.

The 2020 flight of Crew Dragon Endeavour is notable because it ended a 9-year gap when the United States could not launch any astronauts to orbit.

In 2004, President George W. Bush decided to terminate the space shuttle program as soon as construction of the ISS was completed.  His decision was partly for safety reasons in the wake of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, but also because he needed to find money to implement his Vision for Space Exploration to return humans to the Moon by 2020, the Constellation program.

The Bush Administration budgeted to support ISS only through 2015.  It planned to build a smaller version of the Ares V rocket for the Constellation program to ferry crews back and forth to ISS with Russian Soyuz flights filling what was expected to be a 4-year gap between the end of shuttle and the availability of Ares. After that, the U.S. human spaceflight program would focus on exploration of the Moon and Mars.

President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden changed everything in February 2010 when they sent the FY2011 budget to Congress. They proposed using public-private partnerships, not NASA, to build new U.S. human spaceflight systems building on the success of commercial cargo under the Bush Administration.

The gap between the end of the shuttle and a new U.S. system turned into 9 years instead of 4 years, but Bob and Doug ended the drought with their Demo-2 mission and hence were honored today.

Both have retired from NASA. Hurley is now a Senior Director for Northrop Grumman and Behnken works for Lockheed Martin Space.


This article has been updated.

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