Obama praises space shuttle in call

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The Independent US

The astronauts aboard the linked shuttle-station complex took a congratulatory call from the White House today and told President Barack Obama and schoolchildren all about their adventures in space.

Obama got a big laugh in orbit and on the ground when he told the 10 space travellers that at a cruising speed of 17,500 mph (28,000 kph), "We're glad that you are using the handsfree phone."

The president told the two crews he was extraordinarily proud of them for their work at the international space station over the past week. He wanted to know how they installed the new solar panels and what the impact of that green power would be.

"We're investing back here on the ground a whole array of solar and other renewable energy projects and so to find out that you're doing this up at the space station is particularly exciting," Obama said.

Last week's addition of the last set of solar wings doubled the amount of power available for science experiments and will help support a larger crew in a few months, the astronauts said.

The half-hour call came as the astronauts were relaxing after the third and final spacewalk yesterday. Shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven will pull away tomorrow.

Among those who came to the space station on the shuttle was Koichi Wakata, who is the first Japanese person to live on the space station. Wakata will spend at least three months there and is trading places with an American astronaut who has been on board since the last shuttle visit in November.

Meanwhile, school students who gathered at the White House with the president today wanted to know whether the astronauts can play video games in space. They also asked what the astronauts eat and whether they've found any life forms up there.

Discovery astronaut John Phillips said he occasionally played a video game when he lived on the space station for six months in 2005. But he noted spare time is rare in orbit.

One of the two former schoolteachers who flew up on Discovery, Richard Arnold II, said the food was pretty good, consisting mostly of dehydrated fare and military-style ready-to-eat meals "that a few of us ate last year when the hurricane came through Houston."

As for other life forms, the astronauts said they haven't found anything yet. "I think we'll have much more success at finding new types of life and different structures when we go to places like moon and Mars," said astronaut Sandra Magnus.

Obama couldn't resist asking Magnus — the only woman on board — whether she was tempted to cut her hair, which floated in every direction, while she was in space. She said no, and the president called it "a real fashion statement."

There was no mention of Nasa's No. 1 job, empty since Obama took office. The president has yet to nominate a new Nasa chief.

The space agency's second-in-command last year, Christopher Scolese, has been filling in as acting administrator and was at the White House for the call.