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COLBERT treadmill? NASA tips visor to Colbert Nation's vote

By / April 15, 2009

He came, he ran, he won -- sort of. A treadmill that will grace the International Space Station's Node 3 will carry Stephen Colbert's name, after his landslide win in NASA's name-that-node contest.

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The gravitas of the International Space Station is safe. The last US node, scheduled for launch in February 2010, will be called Tranquility, not Colbert.

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The name honors the Apollo 11 landing site. But it's appropriate for other reasons.

Among its amenities, the node sports a viewing port for contemplating the meaning of life, the universe, and everything as stunning views of the Earth pan by. (For those impatient for the answer to LU&E, it's 42.)

And the node will host, among other "utilities," the sanitary facilities -- which on Earth probably would be well stocked with heavily thumbed Readers Digests.

But last night, NASA acknowledged Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert's landslide win in the space agency's online, vote-on-a-name contest for the node.

In a statement, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, noted that "we don't typically name US space station hardware after living people." And, well, technically, that remains true. But you can't miss the acronym.

Hear ye, hear ye. All rise. The treadmill shall henceforth be known as the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill. NASA even offered up a "mission" patch (see above) for the treadmill. The big question: Will they sell that alongside other mission patches in NASA center gift shops? (I'm not holding my breath.)

It was a politic end to a corner the agency painted itself into by opening the contest to "write-in" names. You can read more about that here. Although the rules were clear about the kind of name NASA sought (invoking a spirit of exploration) and about its role as final arbiter regardless of the contest's outcome, that got lost in the stampede citizens of Colbert Nation took part in to boost their man to the top of the list. Over at The Space Review, editor Jeff Foust points out odd results from another attempt by NASA to keep its missions in the public eye.

In this case, the agency was trying to pick up on collegiate basketball's March Madness by pitting 64 missions -- past, present, and future -- against each other in NCAA-like brackets. Online visitors would vote for their favorite missions. The winners would be paired off against each other in the next set of brackets. The Mission Madness champ would be pegged as NASA's "greatest mission."

Among the "upsets":  After the first round ended, a NASA high-altitude balloon still under development beat out the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity 52-48. In fact it made the Final Four, blowing past Mars orbiters, the space station, and the new human-rated launch system NASA is developing.

Along the way to its perch among the Final Four, the still-to-be-launched Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter beat out the Hubble Space Telescope and Apollo 11, when humans first set foot on the moon. Go figure.

Oh yeah, the champ, the "greatest mission" NASA has ever undertaken to date? The still-under-development balloon.

And, Foust asks, in effect, where was the high-profile announcement of the winner? Uh, there wasn't one.

How could it explain, with a straight face, that a little-known balloon project is considered to be the “greatest mission” in NASA’s 50-year history by the voting public, or at least among those people who voted, and voted frequently?

Excellent question!

[Editor's Note: The original version of this story used the wrong spelling of Stephen.]

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