The U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, as featured in Heroes & Legends at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. (KSCVC)
Typically, the space explorers inducted annually into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame do not add significantly to their records between the time when they are announced and when they are enshrined. This year's class, though, was anything but typical.
Celebrated at a public ceremony held at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida on Saturday (Nov. 13), Michael Lopez-Alegria, Pamela Melroy and Scott Kelly became the 100th, 101st and 102nd astronauts to enter the hall. The celebration, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, came almost two years after they were chosen for the honor.
"Our three inductees were selected in 2020, however, their induction ceremony has been postponed until now to allow us to safely honor their achievement with their friends and families," said emcee John Zarella, a journalist and former CNN space correspondent. "Thankfully, patience and perseverance are prerequisites for an astronaut career."
Chosen for their already impressive list of accomplishments achieved both in space and on Earth, the 2020-21 inductees spent the additional time raising the profile of the U.S. space program, returning to work for NASA and, in one case, preparing to return to space on a first-of-its-kind commercial mission.
"We honor these three astronauts today for their extraordinary achievements in space, but let's also learn from their aspirations," said former Senator Bill Nelson, now NASA Administrator and a former space shuttle payload specialist. "Each of these individuals has a unique story."
Members of consecutive astronaut classes in 1992, 1994 and 1996 respectively, Lopez-Alegria, Melroy and Kelly had overlapping NASA careers.
Lopez-Alegria flew four times to space, logging more than 257 days off the planet and retains the record for the most cumulative time on spacewalks by an American at 67 hours and 40 minutes. He is also tied with former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson for the most extravehicular activities by an American at ten.
Melroy flew the first of her three space shuttle missions with Lopez-Alegria as a crewmate. She was only the second U.S. woman to pilot and then command a space mission.
Kelly currently holds the title for the longest single space mission by a U.S. astronaut, a record that was once held by Lopez-Alegria. A veteran of four spaceflights, including the first year-long mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Kelly also shares the distinction with his brother, Mark, of being the first identical twins to both become astronauts.
"Since its first induction in 1990, Astronaut Hall of Fame inductees have sort of mirrored the evolution of human spaceflight in America," said Lopez-Alegria, recounting how the classes progressed from the original Mercury astronauts through the Gemini and Apollo crew members up through the space shuttle beginning in 2001. "Up to today, of all the missions flown by the 98 previous inductees, only 18 are to the ISS."
"Today, my fellow inductees and I have, of the 11 flights that we've flown together, eight of them were to the ISS, so we are entering the International Space Station era," he said.
At the same time, though, the activities that the three honorees have undertaken since being announced in January 2020 suggest another transition may soon be underway.
Lopez-Alegria is now within months of becoming the first former NASA astronaut to return to the space station.
"He's not done yet," said Nelson. "He will return to low Earth orbit, this time as commander of the Axiom private astronaut mission-one [Ax-1] to the ISS. And there he has a real job because he's going to be the caretaker of some private astronauts."
Melroy followed up her induction announcement by returning to work at NASA.
"This has been a pretty amazing year for me. I am very honored to be the deputy to Administrator Bill Nelson," Melroy said. "We are humbled and excited to lead NASA into the future."
"We're poised to return to the moon. We are truly at an inflection point," she said. "We are building a program to achieve a series of objectives that will provide the blueprint to how we maintain a human presence as we explore the solar system and then the universe."
For Kelly, the change has been less about his own actions as it has been NASA moving forward. His U.S. record of 340 days on a single mission will be broken next year by NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who is currently aboard the space station.
"My professional life at NASA has really been the highlight of my life," said Kelly. "What I've learned in my career and in life is that making giant leaps require small, manageable steps and the help of a lot of people along the way."
Saturday's ceremony, which was held under the visitor complex's display of the space shuttle Atlantis, was attended by 24 astronauts, including 17 Hall of Fame inductees. Brian Duffy, Susan Helms and Bob Cabana were chosen to formally induct Lopez-Alegria, Helms and Kelly, respectively.
As in past years, the class of 2020 was selected by a panel of Astronaut Hall of Fame members, flight controllers, historians and journalists. To be eligible, the nominees needed to be U.S. citizens trained by NASA who first orbited Earth at least 17 years ago.
Michael Lopez-Alegria, Pam Melroy and Scott Kelly were the 100th, 101st and 102nd U.S. Astronaut Hall fo Fame inductees. (NASA)