March 24, 2009

White House Checks In With Space Station Crew

The White House phoned in a congratulatory call to the astronauts aboard the linked shuttle-station complex on Tuesday, where the shuttle crew told President Barack Obama and visiting schoolchildren about their spaceflight experience, the Associated Press reported.

"We're glad that you are using the hands-free phone," joked President Obama, as the 10 astronauts were cruising at a speed of 17,500 mph.

Obama asked about the new solar panels being installed and what the impact of that green power would be for the space station.

"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.

The astronauts said that the addition of the last set of solar wings doubled the amount of power available for science experiments and would help support a larger crew expected within the next few months.

The shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven will pull away Wednesday.

Middle school students visiting the White House asked questions covering a range of topics, such as whether the astronauts can play video games in space, what did they eat and whether they've found any new life forms yet.

John Phillips, one of the Discovery astronauts, told the kids that while spare time is rare in orbit, he occasionally played a video game when he lived on the space station for six months in 2005.

Richard Arnold II, one of the two former schoolteachers who flew up on Discovery, said the food was pretty good even though it was made mostly of dehydrated fare and military-style ready-to-eat meals.

He said the meals were similar to what "a few of us" ate last year when the hurricane came through Houston.

Obama jokingly asked if the astronauts were drinking Tang, adding that Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who flew on a space shuttle in 1986, told him it had been taken off the menu.

"By the way, before the time of you young people, we used to drink Tang," Obama said.

The astronauts told the students and White House staff they hadn't found any new forms of life, however.

"I think we'll have much more success at finding new types of life and different structures when we go to places like the Moon and Mars," said astronaut Sandra Magnus.

Obama asked Magnus, the only woman on board, whether she was tempted to cut her hair since it floated in every direction, while she was in space.

NASA's second-in-command, Christopher Scolese, has been filling in as acting administrator and was at the White House for the call.

Since Obama became president, he has yet to nominate a new NASA chief.


Image Caption: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the shuttle and station crew members. Photo credit: White House / Pete Souza


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