Aug. 13, 2012 at 12:06 PM ET
In today's congratulatory phone call to the team behind NASA's Mars Curiosity rover, President Barack Obama made sure that if the mission discovers Martians, he'll be one of the first to know.
"If in fact you do make contact with Martians, please let me know right away," Obama said during the call, which was placed from Air Force One to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "I've got a lot of things on my plate, but I expect that that will go to the top of the list. Even if they're just microbes, it will be pretty exciting."
Obama also said he was impressed by the attention that's been paid to flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, the "Mohawk Guy" whose star-spangled haircut and warmhearted demeanor during Curiosity's Aug. 5 landing won him Internet fame.
"I, in the past, thought about getting a Mohawk myself," Obama joked. "But my team keeps on discouraging me. And now that he's received marriage proposals and thousands of new Twitter followers, I think I'm going to go back to my team and see if it makes sense."
The congratulatory phone call is a tradition for the White House, marking events ranging from sports prowess to his rivals' political achievements. But it was clear that Obama particularly enjoyed congratulating the scientists and engineers behind the amazingly successful landing of NASA's newest Mars probe.
Obama gushed over the technological triumph, which required the successful sequential firing of 79 explosive devices, the unfurling of a monster parachute at supersonic speeds, and the seemingly crazy use of a rocket-powered sky crane that lowered the 1-ton, car-sized rover to the Martian surface.
"Due to your dedicated efforts, Curiosity stuck her landing and captured the attention and imagination of millions of people, not just across our country but people all around the world," he said.
Shout-outs to the team
Obama gave shout-outs to JPL Director Charles Elachi, who took the call in the company of the team at the lab's mission control area; as well as descent team leader Adam Steltzner; mission managers Peter Theisinger and Richard Cook; project scientist John Grotzinger; and John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science.
"You guys should be remarkably proud," the president said. "Really, what makes us best as a species is this curiosity that we have, and this yearning to discover and know more, and push the boundaries of knowledge. You are perfect examples of that, and we couldn't be more grateful to you."
He said the achievement embodied the American spirit, and he gave his "personal commitment to protect these critical investments in science and technology."
"This is the kind of thing that inspires kids across the country," he said. "They’re telling their moms and dads they want to be part of a Mars mission, maybe even the first person to walk on Mars. And that kind of inspiration is the byproduct of work of the sort that you guys have done."
Obama noted that many of the Curiosity team's members are getting some "well-deserved rest" after the first week of operations on Mars. The rover is currently being reprogrammed for its two-year science mission — a four-day-long engineering task that is giving scientists a break to think about the work ahead.
Curiosity's $2.5 billion mission focuses on studying billions of years' worth of geology on Mars and determining whether the planet was ever potentially habitable. The mission is not specifically designed to detect life, even on the scale of microbes, but it could point the way for future life-detection experiments.
By then, it just might be possible for Obama to sport the Mohawk he's always wanted. And even if he doesn't go with that hair style, the tone being set by the Curiosity mission — and by today's lighthearted phone call — just might reflect a new style for the space effort.
"It does sound like NASA's come a long way from the white shirt, black dark-rimmed glasses and the pocket protectors, you know?" Obama noted. "You guys are a little cooler than you used to be."
Update for 1:10 p.m. ET: Obama with a Mohawk? A tweeter named Darth has given the president his desired 'do, thanks to image-processing magic. (Tip o' the log to Discovery News' Ian O'Neill.)
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.