The seven-member crew of the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis has made history. They have become the first astronauts in orbit to testify before a U.S. Senate committee. The astronauts lobbied for greater support for space exploration.
The Atlantis shuttle crew carried out one last task Thursday before wrapping up their mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. They beamed in via satellite to a Senate subcommittee considering the budget of the U.S. space agency, NASA.
"This is space shuttle Atlantis. We have you loud and clear, sir."
Astronaut John Grunsfeld appealed to the senators for more support for NASA.
"But when you look the importance of what we do - things like Hubble, the International Space Station, our exploration program, our climate observing, our observing the Earth, the dynamic Earth," said John Grunsfeld. "All of these things are so very important to the country and to the world that the risks are definitely worth it."
On this mission, the astronauts performed Hubble repairs that were so complicated NASA officials compared them to "brain surgery." The telescope has helped scientists determine the age of the universe, and proven the existence of far-away galaxies and black holes.
Grunsfeld spoke of the orbiting camera's legacy.
"It would be hard to find a K through 12 schoolroom anywhere in the United States of America that doesn't have a Hubble picture up on the wall," he said.
President Barack Obama has requested nearly $18.7 billion from Congress for NASA's 2010 budget. That is about five percent more than the current budget.
NASA's acting administrator, Christopher Scolese, recently said the request is a good sign.
"I think that's an indication that NASA is something this administration really cares about," said Christopher Scolese.
Congress still has to approve the budget. And the Obama administration has ordered a review of NASA's new human spaceflight program, which would replace the shuttles after their planned retirement in 2010. The new Constellation spacecraft will not be ready until at least 2015.
Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski raised concerns at the hearing about shuttle workers who might lose their jobs.
"We're talking about thousands of people who've really served the nation with fidelity and reliability," said Senator Mikulski.
Republican Senator George Voinovich separately questioned whether Washington's strained relationship with Moscow would affect the space program. Russia's Soyuz spacecraft is to service the International Space Station until the U.S. replaces its shuttles in 2015.
NASA's acting administrator, Scolese, dismissed the concerns.
"We're linked very tightly on the space station," he said. "They can't survive without us, and we can't survive without them."
Former shuttle commander Charles Bolden may be the man to address these issues. The retired Marine major general met President Obama this week and is expected to be chosen as the next NASA administrator.
Mr. Obama spoke to the shuttle Atlantis crew about the nominee by phone on Wednesday.
"I can't disclose it to you because I've got to have some hoopla [ceremony] on the announcement back here on Earth," said President Obama. "But I can assure you that it's a high priority of mine to restore that sense of wonder that space can provide and to make sure we've got a strong sense of mission, not just within NASA but to the country as a whole."
The astronauts expect to be back on Earth to hear the news. They are scheduled to return home Friday if the weather permits.