Obama Congratulates NASA Curiosity Team
August 14, 2012

President Obama Congratulates NASA Mars Curiosity Team

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April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

"What you've accomplished embodies the American spirit."

This praise came from President Barack Obama in a phone call from Air Force One to the operations team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in which he lauded NASA's "incredibly impressive" mission in landing the Curiosity rover on Mars last week.

Obama's call was both congratulatory and lighthearted.

"Through your dedicated effort, Curiosity stuck her landing and captured the attention and imagination of millions of people," he said, using the gymnastics term of the day after the Olympic Games wrapped up in London.

"It's really mind-boggling what you've been able to accomplish, and being able to get that whole landing sequence to work the way you did is a testimony to your team," Obama said.

That "whole landing sequence" was made using a sophisticated rocket-and-winch system, a complex series of maneuvers involving intricately timed rocket firings, a huge parachute and cables lowering the craft to the Mars surface. Despite the complicated landing system used during the "seven minutes of terror", Curiosity still landed about 1.5 miles from its target, which was well within the range where it was expected to come down.

That landing came as a welcome success for NASA, which has been plagued by science budget cuts and the cancellation of its 30-year-old space shuttle program. Obama offered NASA "a personal commitment to protect these critical investments in science and technology" and said the rover was set to prompt more work on and about Mars.

"Our expectation is that Curiosity is going to be telling us things that we did not know before and laying the groundwork for an even more audacious undertaking in the future, and that's a human mission to the Red Planet," he said. "Really what makes us best as a species is this curiosity that we have and this yearning to discover more and more, and to push the boundaries of knowledge and you are a perfect example of that."

Curiosity has been transmitting a high-resolution color panorama of Gale Crater, the landing site, for the last few days while simultaneously receiving new operating software updates. The software upgrade will prime the plutonium-powered, 900kg vehicle to be driving across the floor of the 155km-wide crater.

The rover will head toward Mount Sharp, an 18,000-foot high mountain about 7.5 miles south of where it landed. Curiosity will climb at least a small portion of this mountain, which is composed of layers of rock that have built up over time. Using its science tools, the rover will test for organic molecules, which would indicate the planet could have once hosted life.

Curiosity's cameras will also target the peak of Mount Sharp, which rises 5.5 km above the floor of the crater. The mountain towers over the landing site but the bulk of it was missed by the pre-programmed panorama.

Traditionally, color images from planetary spacecraft are derived from black and white images taken through color filters. Curiosity takes color images in a single step, using built in color filters — the same technology used in consumer digital cameras and smartphones.

Curiosity is supposed to last for two years on the red planet, but previous missions suggest that it could go longer. NASA had planned for twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity to last only 90 days, but Spirit persevered from 2004 to 2010, and Opportunity is still chugging along.

Though he is on the campaign trail, Obama said he wanted a quick update if Curiosity does find signs of life.

"If in fact you do make contact with Martians please let me know right away," the president said, to laughter. "I've got a lot of other things on my plate, but I suspect that that will go to the top of the list. Even if they're just microbes it will be pretty exciting."

The president also joked about NASA's now famous social media sensation — "Mohawk Guy."

"I, in the past, thought about getting a mohawk myself, but my team keeps on discouraging me," Obama said to the sound of laughter from dozens of NASA employees.  "And now that he's received marriage proposals and thousands of new Twitter followers, I think that I'm going to go back to my team and see if it makes sense."

Mohawk Guy," whose real name is Bobak Ferdowsi, has become famous for his look during the rover landing last week. As the world waited for Curiosity to touch down, Ferdowsi sported a red-and-black mohawk with yellow stars dyed on the sides of his head.

"It does sound like NASA has come a long way from the white-shirt, black dark-rimmed glasses and the pocket protectors. You guys are a little cooler than you used to be."