On Monday, President Obama made a congratulatory phone call to members of the Mars Science Laboratory team at JPL, thanking them for their work successfully landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. The eight-minute call was a fairly basic speech thanking the JPL team and its partners for the mission, with the now-obligatory mention of flight director Bobak Ferdowsi’s mohawk. It was, though, according to one source, only the third time a sitting president made a congratulatory call to JPL regarding a robotic mission achievement: Gerald Ford callled in 1976 for the Viking missions and George W. Bush called in 2004 after the landing of the Mars rover Spirit.
“You guys are examples of American know-how and ingenuity, and it’s really an amazing accomplishment,” the President said late in the call. “I’m going to give you guys a personal commitment to protect these critical investments in science and technology.” Left unmentioned, though, is the 20-percent cut in NASA’s planetary sciences program in his fiscal year 2013 budget proposal and a decision to back out of the joint ExoMars program with Europe.
President Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, also worked in a mention of the Curiosity rover landing during a campaign stop in St. Augustine, Florida. “You also just saw we just landed on Mars and took a good look at what’s going on there,” he said, using the landing, as well as the US’s performance at the Olympics, as evidence that the America was still the greatest nation in the world. “And I know the Chinese are planning on going to the Moon, and I hope they have a good experience doing that. And I hope they stop in and take a look at our flag that was put there 43 years ago.”
The comment about China’s lunar plans recalls a statement Romney made nearly six months ago, one of the last times he mentioned space on the campaign trail. Speaking in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Romney was dismissive of claims that China was planning a human mission to the Moon. “It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right?” he said at the time. “And when you get there would you bring back some of the stuff we left?” Romney’s comments indicate he does not appear to be any more concerned about those plans now.