HOUSTON — President Barack Obama made a long-distance call to space today (July 15) to the astronauts flying on NASA's final shuttle mission to the International Space Station, assuring the crew that the United States has a future in human spaceflight beyond shuttle era.
"I was here in the Oval Office watching you guys take off last Friday," Obama told the crews of space shuttle Atlantis and space station. "We're all watching as the 10 of you work together as a team to conduct spacewalks and keep the space station humming. Your example means so much, not just to your fellow Americans, but your fellow citizens on Earth."
Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim launched into orbit on July 8. They are now more than halfway through their 13-day mission, and plan to return to Earth on July 21.
The Atlantis' astronauts joined the six astronauts already living aboard the space station. Together, the two space crews have worked together to perform one spacewalk and transfer the enormous amount of cargo brought up by Atlantis onto the space station. [Video: Obama Talks Future in Call to Space Station]
VIP call from the White House
During Obama's call, the commander in chief paid tribute to NASA's 30-year space shuttle program, and the personnel who devoted their lives to it.
"I know there have been thousands who have poured their hearts and souls into the shuttle program for several decades," Obama said. "I want to say thank you. You've helped our country lead the space age and you continue to inspire us." [Photos: President Obama and NASA]
Looking to the future, Obama stressed that the retirement of the space shuttle program, "ushers in an exciting new era." He stated his challenge to NASA to create new systems and technologies that will allow the agency to push beyond low-Earth orbit, and one day send humans to Mars.
"I know we'll be up for the task," Obama said. "I just want to say how proud I am of all of you."
The president also asked the shuttle crew about a special memento that they brought on their flight: an American flag that flew on the very first space shuttle mission —STS-1 —that they will leave on the orbiting outpost as a symbol of the country's future human spaceflight pursuits.
"As part of a special presentation, we'll present that to the space station crew," Ferguson said. "It will hopefully maintain a position of honor until the next vehicle launches from U.S. soil and brings U.S. astronauts up to dock at the space station."
Obama called this a "capture the flag moment" for commercial spaceflight, with competition fueling who will be the first private firm to launch American astronauts back to the station from home soil.
Several commercial companies are aiming to take over supply flights to the space station, with the goal of one day also taxiing humans to and from low-Earth orbit. For the next several years, however, NASA will rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry astronauts to the space station for their long-duration missions.
Teamwork and cooperation
The president also reflected on the impact of the space shuttle program, particularly in fostering the cooperation of multiple countries that made the construction — and continues to make the operation — of the International Space Station possible.
"Our crew is really international," cosmonaut Sergei Volkov said. "Right now, [we have] representatives of three agencies, NASA, Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency) and JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency). We're more than just representatives of our each country, we're one big family."
"It is a wonderful testimony to the human spirit," Obama said.
The conversation had several lighthearted moments, with the president joking that he must have called the wrong number.
"I was just dialing out for pizza," Obama said. "I didn't expect to end up in space."
Obama also asked about the living situations on the orbiting outpost, saying that teamwork is particularly important since the spaceflyers have to share bathrooms and cramped quarters.
"My wife and daughters are always crowding me up," he said. "Hopefully you guys have a more organized arrangement than we do."
Ferguson responded that despite having 10 residents, the International Space Station is quite roomy.
"We actually have three bathrooms onboard, we have a gym, several bedrooms," Ferguson replied. "It's probably one of the more spacious homes outside of planet Earth."
Before hanging up, the president sent his best wishes to the crew, and wished Godspeed to Atlantis and its astronauts for their return home next week.
"On behalf of all the international partners onboard, we're honored to represent everybody on the planet Earth," Ferguson said.