At a ceremony in Washington on Wednesday, John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins were awarded Congressional Gold Medals for their work advancing human spaceflight.
Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor awarded in the United States. It is given to people who have performed some outstanding duty or deed benefiting the security, prosperity or interest of the United States.
Glenn, Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins were among the pioneers of human spaceflight. They took enormous risks in the interest of the exploration of an extremely hostile and unknown environment.
Glenn, the first American to complete a full orbit of Earth, was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1990. He also became the oldest man to fly in space: When he was 77, he flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
Armstrong was the commander of Apollo 11 and the first man to walk on the moon. Upon stepping onto the lunar surface, he spoke the oft-quoted words, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
Aldrin was the lunar module pilot on the crew of Apollo 11. He was the second man to set foot on the moon, following Armstrong.
Collins was the command module pilot on the crew of Apollo 11. When Armstrong and Aldrin took the lunar module down to the surface of the moon, Collins stayed behind in Columbia, in orbit around the moon.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden summed up the astronauts' legacy:
"When, 50 years ago this year, President Kennedy challenged the nation to reach the moon, to 'take longer strides' toward a 'great new American enterprise,' these men were the human face of those words. From Mercury and Gemini, on through our landings on the Moon in the Apollo Program, their actions unfolded the will of a nation for the greater achievement of humankind.
"Today, another young president has challenged us to reach for new heights and plan an ambitious mission to Mars. Just as we called on the four individuals we honor today to carry out our early achievements in space, we now call on a new generation of explorers to go where we have never gone before."
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