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Obama Calls Atlantis Astronauts on Space Station

President Barack Obama called astronauts aboard the International Space Station, one week to the day after the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off toward the orbiting lab on the final mission of the space shuttle era.

It was the voice of legendary musician Paul McCartney that woke up the Atlantis shuttle crew Friday.  "Good morning, guys.  Wake up!  And good luck on this, your last mission.  Well done," McCartney said.

It was the first, but not the only, familiar voice of the day.

President Barack Obama joked with the astronauts when he reached the crew aboard the space station Friday. "Oh, that's funny, see, because I was just dialing out for pizza," he said.

Mr. Obama told the crew that he watched the Atlantis shuttle launch on television in the Oval Office.  He said he was proud of their work and excited about the future of the U.S. space agency. "While this mission marks the final flight of the space shuttle program, it also ushers in an exciting new era to push the frontiers of space exploration and human spaceflight," he said.     

The president reiterated the highlight of the space policy he unveiled last year, directing NASA to develop spacecraft that can go beyond low-Earth-orbit to asteroids and ultimately carry humans to Mars. "...which is no small feat, but I know we're going to be up for the task," he said.

President Obama's space policy was a shift from that of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who set a return to the Moon -- as a stepping-stone toward the planet Mars -- as the main goal.  During the Bush administration, NASA created the Constellation program with Mr. Bush's plans in mind.  That program was canceled during the Obama administration, after more than $10 billion was spent on it.     

Speaking to reporters from aboard the space station earlier Friday, astronaut Chris Ferguson, commander of the Atlantis crew, acknowledged his frustration with the ups and downs of U.S. space policy.

"We've had a lot of major programs, vibrant and very interesting programs, come and go at NASA without coming to, you know, fruition.  And a lot of that is politics-driven.  A lot of it is funding-driven," Ferguson said.  

Commander Ferguson said he would prefer that U.S. lawmakers focus on long-term strategies.  

"Look at the horizon.  Don't look one or two years in the future, but look at 10 years, and see where you want this nation to be.  And I understand that the president has his space policy and I think that that's fantastic, but we need to retain a coherent, meaningful space policy that will take us more than just one or two years in the future -- that will take us out to 10 and 15 years," he said.    

Lawmakers are awaiting a report from NASA that details the space agency's plans for a heavy-lift launch system that could go beyond low-Earth-orbit.

The U.S. space shuttle program, which has cost more than $113 billion, ends when the space shuttle Atlantis lands next week.

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