WASHINGTON — With congressional leaders accustomed to seeing VIPs including world leaders and Hollywood celebrities at the Capitol, Wednesday’s visitors drew a special declaration from House Speaker John Boehner:
“This is pretty cool.”
Such was the case when space legends John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“‘Hero’ is an overused word, but I think that all who are assembled here today would not hesitate to describe our honorees as genuine national heroes,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, top Democrat on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
She said the astronauts have “continued to inspire young and old, even though their path-breaking missions occurred more than four decades ago.”
“Walk up to virtually anyone on the street and they’ll be able to tell you the names of our first president, our current president, the first American to orbit the Earth, and the first Americans to land on the moon,” added Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chairman of the House committee that oversees the space program.
The Capitol Rotunda ceremony was attended by Democratic and Republican congressional leaders; NASA administrator Charles Bolden Jr.; retired space shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt in Tucson in January; and five members of the most recent astronaut candidate class.
It was a bittersweet moment for supporters of the space program, coming as Congress takes up a spending bill that would cut NASA’s budget by $648 million.
“America urgently needs to reassert its pre-eminence in manned space flight,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, top Republican on the Senate committee that oversees the space program, alluding to the budget challenges.
In accepting the medal, Glenn, 90, reprised a closing line from a speech he delivered to Congress nearly 50 years ago after his flight in Friendship 7: “As our knowledge of the universe in which we live increases, may God grant us the wisdom and guidance to use it wisely.”
Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. Aldrin, pilot of the lunar module, was the second to step foot on the moon. Collins piloted Apollo 11′s command module. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth.
Recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal include Wilbur and Orville Wright, Charles A. Lindbergh, Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Walt Disney.
The presentation ceremony came more than two years after President Obama signed legislation to award the medals to the NASA legends. It was passed by Congress in 2009, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.