Obama asks NASA, Russian astronauts about solar arrays, outer space e-mail

President, school kids have video conference with space shuttle, space station crew

After several busy days aboard the International Space Station and the connected space shuttle Discovery, astronauts took questions today from President Barack Obama about their diet, science experiments and sending e-mail from space.

The seven NASA astronauts on the space shuttle and the two U.S. astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut living on the space station gathered in the station's Harmony module today to take part in a video conference with Obama, several members of Congress and a group of students from Washington middle schools. The questions to the astronauts ranged from how they exercise up there and how they send e-mail from space to whether they've found extraterrestrial life.

Obama told the astronauts he was proud of them and asked how they went about installing the solar panels that were attached to the S6 truss, which was the last piece of the space station's backbone. The truss was put in place last week, and the solar arrays were unfurled last Friday.

With the truss and arrays in place, the space station will now get enough extra solar energy to support a doubling of the station's crew this May.

"This is really exciting," said Obama. "We're investing back here on the ground in a whole array of solar and other renewable energy projects. So to find out you're doing this up there at the space station is very exciting."

Between the president and the school children, the astronauts were hit with questions about how they sleep in a weightless environment, what they eat in space and if they've discovered other life forms. (The answer to the last question was no, not yet.)

The astronauts also explained to questioners how they synchronize their e-mail once or twice a day with servers on Earth to send messages to NASA and their families.

On Monday, two NASA astronauts went on a six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk to lubricate a sticky robotic arm and try to fix a latch on an external payload attachment grid. The grid is a platform that can host experiments or other activities that need to be held outside the space station.

Bill Jeffs, a NASA spokesman, told Computerworld today that the spacewalkers weren't able to fix the latch yesterday. A bolt had been installed backwards during another spacewalk last week, and it's now tightly wedged in there and not budging. Jeffs said the astronauts tethered the carrier down with four straps, and astronauts will have to tackle the job on a future spacewalk.

The shuttle Discovery, which docked with the space station a week ago, is scheduled to begin its return trip at 3:53 p.m. EDT tomorrow. The shuttle is slated to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday afternoon.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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