The first American astronaut to orbit the Earth and the crew of the first moon landing were bestowed by Congress with its highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, during a ceremony Nov. 16 in Washington, D.C.
Mercury astronaut John Glenn and Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins accepted the medals from Speaker of the House John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
“They will tell you that they are not heroes. Don’t listen to them,” said McConnell. “America is only as strong as the citizens we produce and here are four of the best.”
“Gentleman, heroes or not, your acts were heroic,” said Boenher. “Today we add you to your many honors, with respect and gratitude, the Congressional Gold Medal.”
Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, and Glenn are the first NASA astronauts to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Congress bestows the medal as its “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.”
“We stand on the shoulders of the extraordinary men we recognize today. Those of us who have had the privilege to fly in space followed the trail they forged,” said Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator and a former astronaut. “On behalf of NASA and all the astronauts past and present, I congratulate and thank each of you — John, Neil, Buzz, and Mike, our Congressional Gold Medal recipients.”
Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — which all three Apollo 11 crew members were also awarded in 1969 — the Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award in the United States.
The four gold medals were presented more than two years after Congress authorized the New Frontier Congressional Gold Medal Act in July 2009 to mark the 40th anniversary of the July 1969 moon landing. President Barack Obama signed the act into law on Aug. 7, 2009.
The hiatus between the act’s passage and the Nov. 16 ceremony provided time for the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee and the Commission of Fine Arts to develop a design for the medals and for the United States Mint to strike them.
The medal’s design, which the astronauts were consulted on, was approved in November 2010. Spacesuited busts of Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and Glenn adorn the front of the gold medal. The Earth as seen from space and the recreation of a photo that showed Aldrin with the U.S. flag on the moon’s surface complete the medal’s obverse.
The reverse design depicts Glenn’s Mercury capsule over the Earth juxtaposed by the Apollo lunar lander flying over the moon.
Congress appropriated $50,000 for the gold medals to be created. The Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to have minted bronze replicas of the gold medals to sell to the public to offset the cost of the medals being awarded to the astronauts.
Both 1.5-inch (3.8 cm) and 3-inch (7.6 cm) replicas were produced. The bronze medallions went on sale through the U.S. Mint beginning Nov. 16 for $7.95 and $44.95 respectively.
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