Gov. Jerry Brown briefly reinstated his "Governor Moonbeam" nickname during a visit Wednesday to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where he thanked the NASA scientists who successfully landed the Curiosity rover on Mars.

His visit coincided with the rover taking its first test drive inside a Martian crater. The governor also declared Wednesday as Space Day, a proclamation he first made in 1977 during his initial turn in the governor's office from 1975 to 1983.

"Of course I talked a little bit too much about space, and they began to think I might be a little bit spacey," Brown said to laughter. "And that's where I got this moniker called 'Governor Moonbeam.'"

The late Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko labeled Brown "Governor Moonbeam" for ideas that were considered far-out at the time, including Brown's proposal that California launch a communications satellite into space. Royko retracted the nickname years later, and many of Brown's earlier ideas have since become reality.

His Space Day proclamation noted that "space satellites have brought us all closer together by enabling telecommunications and gathering remote-sensing imagery to map the entire surface of the earth."

During the JPL tour Wednesday, he added: "There's a lot of other ingredients into my moonbeamship, only one of which was my interest in space."

Brown toured the operations center where engineers monitor Curiosity's day-to-day activities, donning 3-D glasses to watch an animation of the rover's first drive. Mission managers and flight controllers, including "Mohawk Guy" Bobak Ferdowsi, answered his questions about the $2.5 billion mission.

Brown remarked that the setup was "pretty impressive." He then went to see a full-scale model of Curiosity in another part of the lab as engineers pointed out the various cameras and instruments.

During his speech, Brown said JPL's work was proof that despite its financial and political challenges, California remains the land of innovation. He praised staffers for their cooperative spirit.

"Your being here together and what you're doing in this collaborative way, it's a model. I can tell you that's not the way government operates in California," the Democratic governor lamented.

"It inspires me to go back to Sacramento, where we operate on very different principles."

He received a standing ovation after his speech and was given a sky blue polo shirt identical to the ones that mission controllers wore on landing day.


Williams reported from Sacramento. Associated Press writer Alicia Chang in Pasadena also contributed to this report.