Astronauts flying in space are used to VIP phone calls that don’t always go as scripted, but Wednesday’s conversation was probably one of the most awkward.
President Barack Obama used his chat with the crews of the space shuttle Endeavour and the International Space Station to declare that he sees space exploration as “so important.”
“My commitment to NASA is unwavering,” Obama said. He emphasized “how proud we are of you … and how committed we are to continuing human space exploration in the future.”
A few weeks ago, the White House unveiled a plan to cancel NASA’s new spaceship, its two new rockets and the NASA program, now five years in the making, to return astronauts to the moon. Though Obama also wants to add an extra $6 billion to NASA’s budget over the next five years, his proposal has thrown much of the space agency into turmoil.
Olivier Douliery, Abaca Press/MCT
President Barack Obama, surrounded by middle school students in Washington, D.C., talks to U.S. astronauts on Wednesday.
None of the 11 astronauts was rash enough to bring up the outrage felt by many of their colleagues, but they were more candid during media interviews they gave earlier in their mission.
“It’s a tough time, and there’s a lot of uncertainty out there,” Endeavour pilot Terry Virts told CBS News last Saturday. “It’s just really important right now to focus on flying the shuttle safely.”
“This is a phase that we must just go through,” said Virts’ crew mate Kay Hire. “It would’ve been nice to have it a little smoother.”
Endeavour’s crew has spent the last week bolting two large new rooms onto the station. They are the last major pieces to be furnished by NASA, and their addition leaves the station 98% complete.
Obama also wants to give the station more time among the stars by extending its lifetime from 2015 until 2020 or longer. But his space plan, if approved by Congress, would leave NASA without a way to take astronauts to space after the shuttle retires this year or next.
Other conversations between higher-ups and high-flying crews have been less irony-laden than comic.
In 2005, President George W. Bush called the first space-shuttle crew to return to orbit after the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts in 2003. The president raced through a few sentences of congratulations, then barked, “Now get back to work!” His next call to a shuttle crew was private.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton rambled on and on in a call to the space shuttle, talking about his daughter Chelsea’s interest in space, the finer points of the mission and the politics of gaining support for NASA. In case the astronauts didn’t have enough performance pressure, Clinton told them that by doing a good job they would help him win votes for NASA in Congress.
Queen Elizabeth II was supposed to have a conversation with the crew aboard the space station in 2007 while visiting Mission Control in Houston. Instead she only listened, a puzzled expression on her face, while the astronauts talked. It fell to her escort, a British-born astronaut, to keep the conversation going by asking his colleagues questions.