INTERNATIONAL NEWS - More than 40 years after they set foot on the surface of the moon, the Apollo 11 astronauts were granted the highest civilian honour by the US Congress on Wednesday.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first men to walk on the moon in July 1969, their crewmate Michael Collins, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a pomp-filled ceremony in the US Capitol.
The now elderly former astronauts were each handed a boxed gold medal by a member of the congressional leadership.
The ceremony comes as NASA announced this week that it is searching for the next class of potential astronauts. Also attending were the men and women who have most recently completed the astronaut training programme, even as the US space programme remains in a state of flux.
NASA retired its 30-year-old space shuttle programme earlier this year, leaving it reliant on the Russians to transport astronauts aloft for now.
In the meantime, it has contracted with private companies that are developing commercial spacecraft to travel to the International Space Station and has turned its own efforts to developing a craft for long-distance missions.
Armstrong, who rarely makes public statements, and Glenn, himself a former US senator, said the astronauts accepted the honour not just on behalf of themselves, but for all who worked on the early space programme.
NASA administrator Charlie Bolden said the men continue to inspire as the US transitions its space programme, with a focus on eventually travelling to Mars.
"As we embark upon the next great chapter of human space exploration, 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," Bolden said.
Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honour granted in the US. The Apollo 11 astronauts received the presidential honour in 1969, shortly after returning to Earth.