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Obama lauds NASA for Mars landing, pledges continued investment

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign fundraising event at the Bridgeport Art Center in Chicago, August 12, 2012. REUTERS/Larry D
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign fundraising event at the Bridgeport Art Center in Chicago, August 12, 2012. REUTERS/Larry D

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated NASA scientists on Monday for landing a rover on Mars, promising to keep up key space investments and jokingly asking if they could keep him posted on any contact with Martians.

In a phone call from Air Force One to the space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Obama lauded their "incredible success" of having landed the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the Red Planet last week.

"Through your dedicated effort, Curiosity stuck her landing and captured the attention and imagination of millions of people," he said, using the gymnastics term the day after the Olympic Games wrapped up in London.

"It's really mind-boggling what you've been able to accomplish, and being able to get that whole landing sequence to work the way you did is a testimony to your team," Obama said.

The science rover's landing came as a welcome success for NASA, which has been beleaguered by science budget cuts and the cancellation of its 30-year-old space shuttle program.

Obama, who has made a focus on engineering, math and science the centerpiece of his education policy, did not specify funding plans, but offered NASA "a personal commitment to protect these critical investments in science and technology" and said the rover was set to prompt more work on and about Mars.

"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," he said.

Curiosity has been called the first fully equipped mobile laboratory sent to another world. Its mission is to search for evidence that the planet most similar to Earth now harbors, or once hosted, the key ingredients necessary for the evolution of microbial life.

In his call to the NASA team, Obama said he wanted a quick update if they do find signs of life on Mars.

"If in fact you do make contact with Martians please let me know right away," the president said, to laughter. "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."

The president also joked that he may want to emulate the look of Bobak Ferdowski, the 32-year-old flight engineer known to fans as "the NASA Mohawk Guy" because of his stars-and-stripes punk rock hairdo.

"I in the past thought about getting a Mohawk myself but my team keeps on discouraging me," Obama said on the call, telling the scientists they had "come a long way" from the dark-rimmed glasses and pocket protectors they were long known for.

"You guys are a little cooler than you used to be," he said.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Writing By Laura MacInnis; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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