Obama pays tribute to NASA's oldest space shuttle

HOUSTON Fri Mar 4, 2011 6:07am IST

The Space Shuttle Discovery is pictured with the earth in the background as it approaches the International Space Station for docking in this still image taken from NASA TV, February 26, 2011.    REUTERS/NASA TV

The Space Shuttle Discovery is pictured with the earth in the background as it approaches the International Space Station for docking in this still image taken from NASA TV, February 26, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/NASA TV

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HOUSTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday paid homage to NASA's oldest space shuttle and urged astronauts aboard the International Space Station to put their new robotic crew-mate to work.

Obama's six-minute phone call from the White House to the orbital outpost 220 miles (350 km) above Earth came during shuttle Discovery's 10-day stay at the station, the shuttle's 39th and final mission.

"It's traveled more distance in space and spent more time in orbit than any of its peers in the shuttle fleet," Obama said of Discovery, NASA's oldest surviving spaceship.

Sister ships Endeavour and Atlantis are scheduled for their final voyages within six months, effectively ending a 30-year chapter in NASA space vehicles.

Shuttle commander Steve Lindsey said that after ground controllers extended Discovery's mission by a day, it will have flown a combined 365 days in space before its planned landing in Florida on Wednesday.

Obama also inquired about a prototype humanoid robot built in partnership with General Motors Corp called Robonaut 2 or R2, a nod to the feisty droid R2D2 from the "Star Wars" movies.

"Are you guys making him do chores up there? Washing dishes or something? Or does he have more exciting jobs?" Obama asked the combined 12 station and shuttle crew members.

Obama feigned frustration when Lindsey told him that R2 was still in its foam packing and likely would not be unpacked for months.

"Come on guys, unpack the guy," Obama said. "He flew all that way and you guys aren't unpacking him?"

R2, a 330-pound (150 kg) machine with a white half-torso and a gold helmet-like head, was among the 10 tons of cargo that Discovery carried up to the orbital outpost on Feb. 24.

Obama's call was mostly light-hearted and avoided hefty topics like NASA's budget and the uncertain future of U.S. space flight.

NASA is ending the shuttle program due to high operating costs and to free up money to develop new spacecraft capable of flying to the moon, asteroids and other destinations in the solar system.

Obama signed a stop-gap funding measure on Wednesday that would keep NASA and other federal agencies funded until March 18. But until Obama and lawmakers in Congress agree to a full-year budget, NASA cannot begin working on a new launch system to replace the space shuttle.

(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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