U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday telephoned astronauts aboard the International Space Station and praised the work being done some 200 miles above the Earth. He also told astronauts that he wants to continue to invest in NASA even as the current fleet of space shuttles is nearing retirement.
"The amazing work that's being done on the International Space Station, not only by our American astronauts — but also our colleagues from Japan and Russia — is 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 — and is part of the reason why my commitment to NASA is unwavering," Obama said into the phone while looking at live video piped back into the Roosevelt Room.
Surrounded by students, the president and his young guests asked the astronauts questions that ranged from the technical — is artificial gravity possible in space? — to the personal.
"Do you feel a little claustrophobic, a little vertigo?" Obama asked.
The 20-minute session comes hours after astronauts opened the shutters on the International Space Station's new $27 million observation deck that features the largest window flown in space and a panoramic view of Earth.
The observation deck is part of Tranquility, a more than $380 million addition to the space station. Space shuttle Endeavour and its crew of six delivered the European compartments for the deck last week and will depart the space station Friday. The crew is scheduled to return to Earth on Sunday on one of the U.S. fleet's last missions.
Only four shuttle flights remain.
Obama voiced support for the space program even as his budget proposal scraps the back-to-the-moon Constellation program and its Ares rockets, and packs on the research for an as-yet-unspecified rocket and destination.
"I just want to let you guys know how proud we are of all of you and what you guys have been accomplishing," Obama said.
Obama, a science fan who has invited students to his South Lawn to look at the stars, indulged in a bit of curiosity himself.
"The rumor was you could see the Great Wall from space, but I'm not sure that's true," Obama told the astronauts.
It's true, they replied. They can also see San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge and the Grand Canyon from space.
The Associated Press news agency has contributed to the report.