Thursday, April 16, 2009

Colbert Station

This week, the name of the next module to be added to the International Space Station was announced by NASA on Comedy Central's show "The Colbert Report". While it may seem an odd venue for such an announcement, NASA's online poll to name the new module had an unambiguous winner: "Colbert". The question on everyone's mind: would NASA honor the results of the web vote?

The poll was initiated by NASA earlier in the year, and the voting ended on March 20. In addition to four suggested options -- "Serenity", "Legacy", "Earthrise" and "Venture" -- NASA also allowed write-in votes. When space enthusiast and host of a popular Comedy Central show Stephen Colbert learned of this opportunity, he encouraged his viewers to write-in "Colbert" to help him win the contest. They responded in droves. Nearly 1.2 million votes were cast, and "Colbert" topped the list. "Serenity" was the most popular of NASA's options, but the voting was dominated by write-ins.

On Tuesday, astronaut Sunita Williams appeared on "The Colbert Report" to announce NASA's final decision for the name of the new station module. And the winner is: "Tranquility"? Since this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first humans on the Moon, NASA selected one of the other suggestions among the top 10 write-in votes -- a reference to the Apollo 11 landing site, in the Sea of Tranquility. The contest rules were clear that NASA reserved the right to make the final decision, regardless of the outcome of the online poll. But one can imagine that many Colbert fans were disappointed.

As a compromise, NASA decided to honor the Comedy Central host in a slightly different way. Among the contents of the new station module will be a sophisticated zero-gravity exercise device that will now be known as the "Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill," or COLBERT. They even designed a "mission patch" for the unit, and offered to let Colbert try it out for himself at one of NASA's facilities in Houston. His response on the show was classic Colbert: "I think a treadmill is better than a node … because the node is just a box for the treadmill. Nobody says, 'Hey, my mom bought me a Nike box.' They want the shoes that are inside."

It was a boost of publicity for the International Space Station that NASA would never have enjoyed without the help of Colbert. Now, if I could just get him to lend the "Colbert bump" to my project...