(Sen) - President Obama called the Mars team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory yesterday to congratulate them on the landing of Curiosity a week earlier.
Phoning from the presidential jumbo, Air Force One, Obama called the success "mind-boggling" and said it was an inspiration that had captured the imagination of the world and laid the groundwork for a manned mission to the Red Planet.
The Mars Science Laboratory team, who gathered with JPL's Director Charles Elachi to listen to the live call, were clearly delighted by this official recognition of their triumph after Curiosity sent back early images including the view of the wall of Gale Crater pictured above. The rover is currently nearing completion of a "brain transplant" - a four-day software upgrade beamed from Earth to allow it to begin exploration.
The President told them: "I just wanted to call and say congratulations to the entire Mars Science Laboratory team and really all of JPL on last Monday's incredible success. You know, through your dedicated efforts, Curiosity's landing captured the imagination of millions of people not just across our country but people all around the world.
"What you did on Mars was incredibly impressive, with so many pyrotechnics going on in perfect succession. It's really mind-boggling what you've been able to accomplish and being able to get that little landing sequence to work the way that you did is a testimony to your achievements."
He went on: "What you accomplished embodies the American spirit and your passion and commitment is making a difference and your hard work is now paying dividends because our expectation is that Curiosity will be telling us things that we did not know before and is laying groundwork for an even more audacious undertaking in the future, and that is a human mission to the Red Planet.
"This is the kind of thing that inspires students throughout the country. They're telling their moms and dads that they want to be part of a Mars mission, maybe even the first person to walk on Mars, and that kind of inspiration is the by-product of what you have done.
"You guys have done an outstanding job. You've made us all proud, you've made NASA proud, you guys are examples of America's knowhow and ingenuity and made this an amazing accomplishment. We can't wait to hear back from Curiosity and learn what's going on. 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 for all of us."
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Watch the video of Obama's phone call to JPL
He added: "You guys should be remarkably proud. It's really what makes us best as a species, the curiosity that we have, and yearning to discover and to know more and to push the boundaries of knowledge, and you know, you are perfect examples of that and we couldn't be more grateful to you. So congratulations and keep up the great work."
During his call, the President quipped that he had considered having a Mohawk haircut himself just like one of the Mars team who had attracted media interest.
He also joked: "If, in fact, you 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 will go to the top of the list! Even if there's a microbe, it will be pretty exciting."
Some took to Twitter after the call to complain of an irony in Obama's words after he had earlier slashed the budget for planetary exploration. Following a cut of $2 billion in funding, NASA withdrew from partnership in Europe's ExoMars missions to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018.
When he moved into the White House, Obama cancelled his predecessor George W Bush's Constellation program to return to the Moon and instead set out a target to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and then to Mars in the 2030s.