President Obama congratulates shuttle crew, vows 'exciting new era' of exploration

CBS News

President Barack Obama made a long distance call from the Oval Office to International Space Station Friday, congratulating the Atlantis astronauts and their station colleagues on the 135th and final space shuttle mission, vowing an "exciting new era" of post-shuttle exploration.

"Hello," the president called.

"Hello, this is International Space Station," shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson replied.

"Well, this is President Obama. Who am I talking to?"

"Hello Mr. President, you're talking to the increment 28 crew and the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis."

"Well, that's funny, see, because I was just dialing out for pizza, and I didn't expect to end up in space," Obama joked.

"Well, yes sir," Ferguson laughed, "it's really an honor and a privilege that you took some time out of your busy day to meet with us."

Shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson, holding a microphone, chats with President Barack Obama during a White House phone call Friday. (Credit: NASA TV)
"Well, listen, it is wonderful to talk to you and I appreciate you guys taking out the time from your mission," the president said. "I always want to just let everybody know how personally proud I am of you and the amazing feats you guys are accomplishing in space. I was here in the Oval Office watching you guys take off last Friday, we're all watching as the 10 of you work together as a team to conduct spacewalks and manage experiments and all the things that are necessary to keep the space station humming.

"Your example, I think, means so much, not just to your fellow Americans, but also to your fellow citizens on Earth. The space program has always embodied our sense of adventure and exploration and courage as you guys work in a really harsh environment.

And I know there have been thousands who have poured their hearts and souls into America's space shuttle program over the last three decades that are following this journey with special interest. And to them and all the men and women of NASA, I want to say thank you. You've helped our country lead the space age and you continue to inspire us."

After chatting with Ferguson about commanding the final shuttle mission, Obama asked about a robotic refueling demonstration kit delivered to the station by the Atlantis astronauts and an American flag that flew aboard the shuttle Columbia during the program's first mission in 1981.

"Yes, Mr. President, we brought a flag that was flown on STS-1 and as part of a special presentation, or ceremony, before we undock, we'll present that to the space station crew and it hopefully will maintain a position of honor until the next vehicle launched fro U.S. soil brings U.S. astronauts up to dock with the space station," Ferguson said.

The Obama administration has ordered a dramatic change of course for NASA, calling for development of private-sector spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the space station and new NASA-operated vehicles for eventual deep space missions. Critics claim the lack of a firm timetable and defined targets will cripple the new program, but Obama told the astronauts NASA will be up to the challenge.

"While this mission marks the final flight of the space shuttle program, it also ushers in an exciting new era to push the frontiers of space exploration and human space flight," Obama told the astronauts. "Crew members like you will continue to operate the ISS in coming years and seek to use it to advance scientific research and technology development. I've tasked NASA with an ambitious new mission to develop the systems and kinds of space technologies that are going to be necessary to conduct exploration beyond Earth and ultimately sending humans to Mars, which is obviously no small feat -- but I know we're going to be up to the task.

"So, I just want to say how proud I am of all of you. Congratulations to NASA, to all our international partners and all the personnel past and present who've spent countless hours and untold effort making the space shuttle and International Space Station a unique part of our history. So accept my gratitude on this tremendous accomplishment and Godspeed as you guys return home next week."