President Obama Quizzes Astronauts on Life in Space
U.S. President Barack Obama, with middle school children, prepares to hand over the phone to a student to ask a question to astronauts on the International Space Station during an event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010 in Washington.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

President Barack Obama quizzed astronauts aboard the International Space Station about life in orbit Wednesday and said he was committed to continuing the United States' space exploration program, even as NASA?s plans for human spaceflight are in flux.

In the cosmic phone call from the Roosevelt Room at the White House, President Obama congratulated the 11 astronauts aboard the linked space station and shuttle Endeavour on their work to bring the $100 billion orbiting laboratory?s near-completion.

?It?s just a testimony to human ingenuity. A testimony to the extraordinary skill and courage that you guys bring to bear, and it?s also a testimony to why continued space exploration is so important,? President Obama said. ?It?s part of the reason why my commitment to NASA is unwavering.?

Earlier this month, President Obama unveiled his 2011 budget request for NASA, which would scrap the space agency?s plans to replace its shuttle fleet with new spacecraft to send humans into orbit and on toward the moon. A new long-range plan is under development, NASA officials have said.

Instead, the president ordered NASA to embrace commercially built spaceships to launch astronauts into space and pledged to set aside $6 billion over the next five years to support private spaceflight. The budget request also extended the International Space Station through at least 2020, a five-year reprieve.

President Obama asked the astronauts what types of research the station?s extension and new additions will allow.

Station astronaut Timothy ?T.J.? Creamer said the space station?s best contribution to science is its weightless environment, which allows a wide range of experiments in flame science, cellular biology for new medicines and new materials research to name a few.

?Long-duration living and working in space is what the space station is all about to do the research and science necessary to take us beyond low-Earth orbit,? the space station?s American commander Jeffrey Williams added.

Endeavour?s six astronauts and the five-man station crew are in the home stretch of their joint mission to add a new room and stunning observation deck to the space station. With them, the space station is about 98 percent complete after 11 years of construction.

The new additions were launched last week, with the astronauts opening up the station?s new bay window ? which offers stunning panoramic views of Earth ? early Wednesday.

?Everybody here back home is excited about this bay on the world that you guys are opening up,? President Obama said. ?Stephen Colbert at least is excited about his treadmill.?

Colbert, the TV funnyman and host of Comedy Central?s ?Colbert Report,? won a NASA voting contest to have the station?s new room named after him last year. NASA opted to name the bus-sized module Tranquility instead to honor the historic Apollo 11 moon landing site.

But the space agency named a new astronaut treadmill after Colbert as a consolation prize. It will be moved inside the new Tranquility module, which serves as a gym, life support equipment hub and robotic arm workstation.

President Obama also turned his phone over to middle school students from Michigan, Florida, North Carolina and Nebraska who were visiting Washington, D.C., for an engineering competition.

The students asked what astronauts could see from space (Answer: the Golden Gate Bridge, city lights at night and other things), and what it takes to be a spaceflyer. They also asked if it will ever be possible to create artificial gravity in space.

?That?s a big physics question there, anyone want to tackle that one?? President Obama said with a chuckle.

Spinning things, like centrifuges, could do the trick, the astronauts said.

The president said he looks forward to setting aside funding to support the development of new technologies or vehicles that could open up the solar system for exploration.

Endeavour?s astronaut crew is slated to move a set of four bulky life support equipment racks, each the size of a large refrigerator, into the station?s new Tranquility room late Wednesday.

The shuttle launched Feb. 8 and is due to return to Earth Sunday night.

Endeavour?s flight is the first of NASA?s five final shuttle missions before the agency retires its orbiter fleet in the fall.