Remarks by Vice President Harris at the Congressional Space Medal of Honor Ceremony
By:White House: Office of the Vice President
Indian Treaty Room
Eisenhower Executive Office Building
January 31, 2023
4:35 P.M. EST
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everyone. Please have a seat. Good afternoon.
To the members of Congress who are here, the members of our administration, and, of course, leaders of NASA and leaders of our military, private sector partners, to all of you: This is a wonderful afternoon of celebration — the celebration of excellence.
So, today, for the first time in nearly 17 years, we award the highest civilian honor that our nation can bestow upon our astronauts: the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Today, we welcome two American heroes to the White House: Colonel Douglas Hurley and Colonel Robert Behnken.
We also welcome their loved ones. In fact, as many of you probably know, for both Bob and Doug, space is a bit of a family business. (Laughter.) Doug’s wife, Karen, has made multiple trips to the International Space Station. And Bob’s wize [sic], Me- — wife, Megan, helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
So it turns out it takes a whole family — (laughter) — to do the kind of work that you all have done to allow us to explore the universe. So, thank you all, each and every one of you, for your service to our nation and to our planet.
So, early in the morning of July 21st, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the last time on the tarmac of the Kennedy Space Center.
After 30 years of exploration, collaboration, and scientific discovery, the Shuttle Program had come to an end.
For our astronauts, and for all of the dedicated professionals at NASA, and for our nation, it was a moment of profound pride to reflect on the years of incredible progress made by the Shuttle and its crews.
It was also a moment of real uncertainty.
For three decades, the Space Shuttle had been America’s only vehicle capable of carrying astronauts to orbit.
But after the Shuttle was retired, some wondered whether the United States could continue our longstanding leadership in space.
Well, America had a vision.
Even as the Shuttle wheeled off the runway at the Kennedy Space Center, we were preparing to build a new space craft, one that would allow our nation to lead the next era of human space flight, to make our vision real.
And so, we understood the importance of collaboration, and we then turned not only inward to look at ourselves and our capacity, we also turned to the private sector, including the scientists and the engineers and technicians at SpaceX — a company whose innovation and agility has revolutionized the commercial space industry.
And we turned to two Americans who have dedicated their lives to the service of our nation and to the exploration of space.
Bob Behnken: an engineer who helped assemble the International Space Station, a veteran of 10 space walks, and NASA’s Chief Astronaut.
And we turned to Doug Hurley: a fighter pilot, a test pilot, and the astronaut behind the controls of that final Shuttle flight.
Together, Bob and Doug and the SpaceX team worked for years to design a new crew capsule, aptly named the Crew Dragon.
Every part of the capsule, from flight controls and emergency procedures to computer displays and cockpit layout — all of that shaped by Bob and Doug’s decades of know-how.
Once the capsule was built, Bob and Doug spent hundreds of hours testing thousands of flight scenarios. They understood the stakes of their work for our nation, for our world, and, importantly, for the astronauts who would one day entrust their lives to the Dragon capsule.
Last week, of course, our nation was reminded of the magnitude of that responsibility.
On Thursday, we observed NASA’s Day of Remembrance. We honored the members of the NASA family who gave their lives for our nation, including the crews of Apollo 1, Space Shuttle Challenger, and, 20 years ago tomorrow, Space Shuttle Columbia.
Those brave Americans remain in our minds and in our hearts. And we remember their memory as we, today and every day, vow to advance their legacy of exploration and of American leadership in space, and so that is what we have done and will continue to do.
Which brings me to May 30th, 2020. Bob and Doug returned to the Kennedy Space Center. They suited up, they waved to their families, and they rode an elevator up nearly 20 stories. They strapped into their seats and waited as the tanks beneath them filled with tens of thousands of gallons of fuel. And then, they launched.
Yeah, they did. (Laughter.)
Millions of Americans watched that day. On the hills and sand dunes of Cape Canaveral; in living rooms, dorm rooms, classrooms across our nation, we watched Bob and Doug’s rocket rise from the launch pad. We watched it climb into the sky and then disappear from our view.
For the first time in almost a decade, we witnessed American astronauts launch an American rocket from American soil. And for the first time in history, we saw astronauts reach orbit in a capsule built and launched by the private sector.
Sixty-four days later, we celebrated as those astronauts splashed down safely off the Florida coast.
Bob and Doug, together, have written the first page of a new chapter in the history of American space flight.
Through their ingenuity and bravery, they have helped rebuild America’s bridge to low-Earth orbit and to the International Space Station, where we conduct some of our most significant and advanced scientific research.
In fact, in April of 2021, on the second flight of the Dragon Capsule, we saw Megan fly to the — to the International Space Station on the Dragon Capsule. And there she was. She flew in the very same seat as her husband and where he sat just a year before. Think about that.
And 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; and to go to Mars and beyond.
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 — career astronauts and also entrepreneurs, educators, artists, and, yes, even students.
Folks who otherwise would have only been able to look up and wonder will now be able to go to orbit and help make real the incredible potential of space, and some of those future astronauts are in the audience right now.
Today, we are joined by three engineering students — where are you guys? — Catie — (laughter) — Sayvon, and Hailu, who are three young leaders — I see you guys — (laughter) — three young leaders who were inspired by the work of these two extraordinary men, and who may, one day, stand on their shoulders.
So, Bob and Doug, on behalf of President Joe Biden, on behalf of the United States Congress, and on behalf of the people of the United States of America — and as I said to you when we were back in the room — on behalf of people you may never meet but who will forever be impacted because of your work, forever, it is my great honor to award you both the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
And now, the Military Aide will read the citations.
MILITARY AIDE: Colonel Douglas G. Hurley, United States Marine Corps, Retired.
From his distinguished service as a fighter pilot and test pilot, to his pioneering career in space, Colonel Douglas G. Hurley has embodied the spirit of bravery and resolve that defines our nation’s greatest heroes.
Colonel Hurley piloted the final mission of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, and served as Spacecraft Commander of NASA’s first crewed commercial spaceflight mission, Demo-2. His leadership in space has paved the way for regular commercial missions to the International Space Station, ushering in a new era of human spaceflight.
For his extraordinary achievements on Earth and in space, our nation honors Douglas G. Hurley.
(The Congressional Space Medal of Honor is presented.) (Applause.)
Colonel Robert L. Behnken, United States Air Force, Retired.
Colonel Robert L. Behnken has dedicated his career to advancing what is possible for humankind in space exploration. Before making history as Joint Operations Commander of NASA’s first crewed commercial spaceflight mission, Demo-2, Colonel Behnken served our nation as flight test engineer and helped assemble the International Space Station.
Through his courage and dedication, Colonel Behnken has accelerated the establishment of a new low-Earth orbit space economy. For his pioneering accomplishments, which have helped extend humanity’s reach into outer space, our nation honors Robert L. Behnken.
(The Congressional Space Medal of Honor is presented.) (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Bob and Doug represent the best of our nation. There’s no question about it. The courage, the commitment, the brilliance, the vision, the ability to see and understand what is possible and then to go for it — it represents the best of who we are as a nation. And in that way, you two inspire all of us. And you really serve as a real example of the power of the ambition and the aspirations of our nation.
So, congratulations to you both. And thank you all for joining us, and let’s have a wonderful reception. Thank you all. Have a good afternoon. (Applause.)
END 4:51 P.M. EST