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Destiny, Columbus, Zvezda, and Colbert???

By / March 23, 2009

The International Space Station as it looked before the current mission added the final set of solar panels.

NASA

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It was bound to happen -- a name-that-module contest that, well, got a little out of NASA's control, at least for now.

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After a month-long contest to pick a name for the International Space Station's "Node 3," which is scheduled for delivery to the station in December, the winner is: Colbert. As in Steven Colbert. As in the "Colbert Report." Winner, as in, technically the winner. But NASA has the final say.

He beat out nine other write-in candidates, as well as four names NASA had posted as choices, according to the Associated Press. Indeed, Colbert wryly observed that the names NASA offered up sounded like names for herbal teas (Earthrise, Serenity, Legacy, and Venture) or Glade plug-ins.

The tally: Colbert 230,539 votes, some 40,000 votes more than the leading contender among NASA's choices, Serenity.

To be sure, Colbert has a far more bully pulpit from which to wage a campaign than NASA chose -- its own website. Colbert did host William Gerstenmaier, the agency's associate administrator for space operations, to chat about the contest. But he got a somewhat non-committal, "Well, we're going to have to go think about that" when he tried to pin "Gerst" down as to how closely NASA would abide by the vote totals.

The contest brings to mind a column a colleague of mine wrote back in the day when NASA held a contest to name the replacement for the space shuttle Challenger. Challenger was destroyed and its crew killed 73 seconds after launch in January 1986.

Students all over the US were invited to suggest names that represented a sea-going vessel that either was designed for research or had taken part in exploration. But before the contest had officially ended, my colleague Robert Cowen found a copy of the shuttle launch schedule. It identified the new bird as Endeavour. Cowen wrote that the new shuttle had been tentatively named Endeavour. NASA was not pleased. After all, the contest wasn't over. But then, when you have a name on the official launch manifest....

Anyway, we'll see how this one plays out. NASA makes the ultimate decision, informed, as they say, by the vote. The announcement currently is scheduled for April 28. And the agency did stipulate that the name should "reflect the spirit of exploration and cooperation embodied by the space station," according to the announcement that the polls had closed.

If  the agency does bow this once to pop culture, however, the last laugh may be on Colbert.

To be sure, the node has some nifty windows for looking at Earth. And it has a control panel for operating the station's robotic arm. But it also will be the final home for the station's "hygiene compartment" (a.k.a bathroom), the waste-water reprocessing system, the oxygen regeneration system, and other environmental controls. It's essentially a utility room with a view.

Given all that, Serenity may not be such a bad name after all. Or maybe NASA and its partners should just stick with the utilitarian Node 3.

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