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Obama praises astronauts in space station call

The astronauts aboard the linked shuttle-station complex took a congratulatory call from the White House on Tuesday and told President Barack Obama and schoolchildren all about their adventures in space.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama seemed to have as much fun Tuesday talking to the 10 astronauts in orbit about e-mailing, fitness and Tang as the children who surrounded him at the White House and took part in the call.

Obama, making his first call to space, even asked the only woman aboard the shuttle-station complex whether she was tempted to cut her long hair while she was up there. She said no, and the president called her flyaway curls "a real fashion statement."

He started the call off joking with the astronauts.

"I'm told that you're cruising at about 17,000 mph (27,350 kph), so we're glad that you are using the handsfree phone," he said.

After getting a big laugh in orbit and on the ground, the president got right down to business, telling the astronauts that he was extraordinarily proud of them for their work at the international space station over the past week. He wanted to know how they installed the new solar panels and what the impact of that green power would be.

"We're investing back here on the ground a whole array of solar and other renewable energy projects and so to find out that you're doing this up at the space station is particularly exciting," Obama said.

Last week's addition of the last set of solar wings doubled the amount of power available for science experiments and will help support a larger crew in a few months, the astronauts said.

The half-hour call came as the astronauts were enjoying their last full day together. Shuttle Discovery departs with its crew of seven Wednesday afternoon.

Obama made sure the middle school students got first crack at the astronauts. Several members of Congress in attendance — "who are like big kids when it comes to talking to astronauts," according to Obama — had to wait their turn.

One boy asked whether the astronauts can play video games in space. The answer: They can, but there isn't much free time. Other children wanted to know what the astronauts eat and whether they have found any life forms up there.

The astronauts said they haven't found anything yet. "I think we'll have much more success at finding new types of life and different structures when we go to places like moon and Mars," said astronaut Sandra Magnus, the only woman aboard.

One of two former middle school teachers who flew up on Discovery, Richard Arnold II, said the food was pretty good, consisting mostly of dehydrated fare and military-style ready-to-eat meals "that a few of us ate last year when the hurricane came through Houston."

"You guys still drink Tang up there?" Obama asked with a laugh. He said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who flew on a space shuttle in 1986, told him Tang had been taken off the menu. Nelson was one of several members of Congress who took part in the call.

Obama also wanted to know about the astronauts' e-mail system and whether it works up there like it does on Earth. Space station commander Mike Fincke explained it's not as instantaneous; they get it synched up just once, twice maybe three times a day.

The president was interested in the fitness requirements of the job, too. "Some of us remember watching 'The Right Stuff,'" he said. The 1983 movie depicts how the seven original Mercury astronauts competed strenuously for their jobs.

Fincke flexed his muscles for the president. "That's pretty impressive," Obama said.

Later in the day, Magnus told reporters she can't wait to go outside when her 4 1/2-month mission at the space station ends. She will return to Earth aboard Discovery.

"You just can't get tired of looking at the views" of Earth, Magnus said. "But part of you wants to be down in the view, in nature, walking through the woods or enjoying the breeze or enjoying the sun on your face."

She's also yearning for sushi, pizza and a chocolate milkshake.

Obama has yet to nominate a new NASA chief and did not mention it in his chat with the astronauts.