President Obama calls shuttle crew; mission extended another day

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 05:25 AM, 03/03/11: Astronauts get off-duty time; presidential call expected
  • Updated at 03:15 PM, 03/03/11: Adding quotes from media interviews; booster video frames
  • Updated at 03:55 PM, 03/03/11: Shuttle mission extended a second day
  • Updated at 06:25 PM, 03/03/11: Adding presidential phone call
CBS News

The Discovery astronauts worked through a busy morning in space Thursday, took the afternoon off and enjoyed a long-distance call from President Barack Obama, who praised NASA's oldest shuttle for a "critical and iconic" final flight to the International Space Station.

"I wanted to call and just say how personally proud I am of you and all that you're accomplishing," Obama said in a phone call from the White House. "We are always inspired by the images of you guys at work as you put some of the final pieces in place to make ISS fully operational. You are setting such a great example with your dedication, your courage, your commitment to exploration. These are traits that built America and you guys personify them."

The combined shuttle-space station crews took a call from President Barack Obama Thursday, who offered his congratulations on a successful mission. (Photo: NASA TV)
Speaking to Discovery commander Steven Lindsey, the president said "it must be a great honor to be the last commander of Discovery. It's traveled more distance in space and spent more time in orbit than any of its peers in the shuttle fleet. So, it's appropriate that it's performing this critical and iconic mission and adding to the legacy by working on this ISS assembly to full operations."

Floating in the Destiny laboratory module with his 11 shuttle and station crewmates, Lindsey told the president it was a privilege to command the spaceplane's 39th and final flight.

"We think that when we land (next Wednesday), Discovery will have flown in space for 365 days, so for a whole year, which is pretty incredible for a vehicle," he said. "She's been in space 39 times ... and she won't be forgotten for a long, long time."

Obama praised the international cooperation that built the space station and joked about an experimental robot known as Robonaut 2, or R2, that Discovery carried into orbit.

"I understand you guys have a new crew member, this R2 robot," Obama said. "I don't know whether you guys are putting R2 to work, but he's getting a lot of attention. That helps inspire some young people when it comes to science and technology. Are you guys making him do chores up there, washing the dishes or something? Or does he have more exciting jobs?"

Lindsey told the president Robonaut 2 is still packed up in protective foam, joking that "every once in a while we hear some scratching sounds from inside, maybe, you know, 'let me out, let me out,' we're not sure."

Obama closed the conversation with a personal aside to space station commander Scott Kelly. Kelly's twin brother, Mark, who will command the next shuttle mission in April, is married to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who suffered a gunshot wound to the head during a Tucson shooting spree in January.

"Scott, I talked to Mark a couple of days ago, it sounds like Gabby's making incredible progress, we're just thrilled for that," the president said. "They're always in our thoughts and prayers as well. I know that's something that's been a deep concern to you as well, so I just wanted to let you know that."

"Yes sir, thank you, she's really a true inspiration to all of us," Kelly said. "I appreciate your words."

The shuttle Discovery during launch Feb. 24. These views, released Thursday, were captured by a camera mounted on the ship's right-side solid-fuel booster. (Photo: NASA TV)
Earlier Thursday, NASA managers decided to extend Discovery's mission a second day.
The flight originally was scheduled to end March 7, but mission managers decided Monday to extend the flight by one day to give the combined crews more time to unload the PMM, launched aboard Discovery with a full load of supplies and equipment.

The astronauts also are moving packing material and no-longer-needed hardware from the PMM to a Japanese cargo ship that is scheduled to be jettisoned March 28. With Discovery in good shape, NASA managers decided Thursday to add a second docked day to the shuttle crew's timeline.

"We've just gotten official word that the MMT (Mission Management Team) has decided to go ahead and add the extra extra day so you'll have one more day on orbit," astronaut Megan McArthur radioed from Houston.

"All right, I'll pass that word along," replied Lindsey. "That's great news. We're excited."

Under the revised flight plan, Discovery will undock from the space station at 7:03 a.m. Monday, March 7. After a final heat shield inspection and routine pre-entry tests of the shuttle's flight systems, Lindsey and pilot Eric Boe plan to guide the veteran spaceplane to its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center at 11:58 a.m. on March 9.

Moments after booster separation two minutes and five secons after launch, Discovery accelerates toward space on the power of its three hydrogen-fueled main engines. The shuttle was about 29 miles up at this point, climbing at a velocity of more than 3,600 mph. (Photo: NASA TV)
"We're seeing a program come to a close here and to see these shuttles, these beautiful, magnificent flying machines, end their service life is obviously a little bit sad for us," astronaut Michael Barratt told an interviewer earlier Thursday. "But it is about time, they've lived a very long time, they've had a fabulous success record, they've built this magnificent space station, they've given us lots of science and a tremendous amount of experience of just how to operate in space.

"More than anything, we look forward to seeing them retire with dignity and bringing on the next line of spaceships."

NASA released spectacular footage Thursday that was captured by cameras mounted on the shuttle's twin solid-fuel boosters showing Discovery's final climb to space Feb. 24. The cameras, looking down, up and sideways at the shuttle's external tank, showed a normal ascent with no obvious signs of foam loss or damage to the ship's heat shield.

NASA managers cleared the heat shield for re-entry earlier this week, after completing a detailed review of ground-, shuttle- and space station-based photography of Discovery's protective tiles, nose cap and wing leading edge panels.

For Discovery's crew, Thursday provided a welcome half day off to relax after a busy week in orbit. The astronauts were awakened just after 5 a.m. by a recording of U2's "City of Blinding Lights" beamed up from mission control.

"Good morning, Discovery," astronaut Michael Massimino called from Houston. "That comes to you from your crewmate on the Earth, Tim Kopra. That was going to be Tim's wakeup song and he asked us to play that for you today to honor his crewmates in space."

Kopra, the Discovery mission's original lead spacewalker, was injured in a bicycle accident in Houston in January and was replaced by astronaut Stephen Bowen.

"Thanks to Tim for that," replied Lindsey. "Even though he's on the ground, he did a wonderful job supporting us during the EVAs and as he knows, he's still with us right now."

The shuttle astronauts spent their morning moving cargo to and from the International Space Station while Kelly and flight engineer Catherine Coleman serviced one of the lab's two U.S. carbon dioxide removal units.