Obama congratulates Mars rover team

CBS News

In a phone call to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, President Obama congratulated the Mars Science Laboratory team Monday for the successful landing of NASA's Curiosity rover, joking that engineers should let him know ASAP if the spacecraft spots any martians.

"We can't wait to start hearing back from Curiosity and finding out what's going on," Obama said. "We're fortunate to be part of a society that can reach beyond our planet and explore frontiers that were only imagined by our ancestors. So it's inspiring to all of us.

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory applaud after a phone call from President Obama congratulating them on the Curiosity rover's successful landing on Mars. (Credit: NASA TV)
"I'm going to give you guys a personal commitment to protect these critical investments in science and technology, I thank you for devoting your lives to this cause and if, in fact, you do make contact with martians, please let me know right away. I've got a lot of other things on my plate, but I suspect that that will go to the top of the list. Even if they're just microbes, it will be pretty exciting."

Senior managers and engineers with the Curiosity project enjoy the president's remarks. From left to right: Dave Lavery, MSL program executive, mission manager Jennifer Trosper, entry, descent and landing team lead Adam Steltzner, JPL Director Charles Elachi, Curiosity deputy program manager Richard Cook, mission manager Mike Watkins and Jessica Samuels, MSL surface systems engineer. (Credit: NASA TV)
Curiosity completed a successful descent to the floor of Gale Crater on Aug. 6, using a rocket-powered flying crane to lower the one-ton nuclear-powered rover to the surface. If all goes well, the rover will spend at least two years exploring the crater, looking for carbon compounds critical for life as it is known on Earth and for evidence of past or present habitability.

While congratulating the entire MSL team, Obama singled out the entry, descent and landing team, led by Adam Steltzner, for the so-called "sky crane" technique that delivered the rover directly to the surface of Mars after an autonomous seven-minute plunge through the atmosphere.

"What you did on Mars was incredibly impressive, those 76 pyrotechnics going on in perfect succession, the 500,000 lines of code working exactly the way you guys had ordered them, it's really mind boggling what you've been able to accomplish," the president said. "Being able to get that whole landing sequence to work the way you did, it's a testimony to your team.

"I especially want to congratulate Charles Elachi, the head of JPL, the entry, descent and landing lead, Adam (Steltzner for) the sky crane system. What you accomplished embodied the American spirit and your passion and your commitment is making a difference and your hard work is now paying dividends, because our expectation is that Curiosity is going to be telling us things that we did not know before and laying the groundwork for an even more audacious undertaking in the future, and that's a human mission to the red planet."

But the Obama administration is scaling back funding for planetary exploration. In NASA's fiscal 2013 budget request, the administration reduced spending for planetary exploration by 20 percent, most of it coming from the Mars program, with additional cuts expected in later years. As a result, NASA was forced to withdraw from two planned Mars missions that would have been conducted jointly with the European Space Agency in 2016 and 2018. No other "flagship" missions like Curiosity's are currently in development.

NASA released Curiosity's first high-resolution color panorama Saturday, showing the rover's surroundings in Gale Crater. The panorama is not yet complete, with stored images still awaiting relay to Earth, but even the partial mosaic included stunning views of the nearby terrain and the distant crater rim. (Credit: NASA)

The budget debate has no impact on current operations and JPL engineers spent the weekend installing and verifying surface operations software in Curiosity's redundant computers, overwriting the no-longer-needed entry, descent and landing programming and replacing initial checkout programs with more sophisticated routines. The upgrade also adds the ability to operate the rover's science instruments, robot arm and mobility system.

The software upgrade, from version 9.4 to 10.0, was expected to be completed over the next day or so. Over the weekend, JPL posted the first high-resolution color images from the rover, part of an initial 360-degree panorama of its surroundings in Gale Crater.

Additional photos, completing the panorama mosaic, are expected soon, along with high-resolution images from Curiosity's descent camera, which captured the final minutes of the rover's landing.

The president said Curiosity is an inspiration to the youth of the nation, "and that kind of inspiration is the by-product of work of the sort you guys have done."

"You guys should be remarkably proud," he concluded. "It is really what makes us best as a species is this curiosity that we have, this yearning to discover and know more and push the boundaries of knowledge. You are perfect examples of that and we couldn't be more grateful to you. So congratulations, keep up the good work."