NASA, the often maligned, sometimes forgotten space agency has a galaxy-sized headache. To try to get more people interested in space exploration, NASA sponsored an online contest in which people could vote on a name for a new room to be added to the International Space Station. The choices on the ballot were Serenity, Legacy, Earthrise, and Venture. However, the winner was "Colbert," named for Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's, "The Colbert Report." He asked his viewers to vote for him, and they did. Now what does NASA do? Do they overrule the 115,000 people who voted for "Colbert" or stick with the popular choice and become the laughingstock of the already giggly world of astrophysics?
Can you name any of the astronauts who are up in the International Space Station? I couldn't either until I did some research for this column. Things have certainly changed in the half-century since the heyday of the original seven Mercury astronauts. Back then, "everybody" not only knew the astronauts' names, they knew what their favorite foods were. These days, we’ve become awfully blasé about the space program. Do teachers have their students watch every space launch on the school's TV set? I don't think so. And I assume that enthusiasm for spending money on space exploration went down as unemployment rates and AIG bonuses went up. So right when NASA comes up with a nice gimmick to get people involved in the space program again, they get out-gimmicked by, well, a goofball.
Colbert tried to get people to vote for him for President – as many comedians have in the past – and that fizzled. But for some reason, this caught on. Since NASA is an agency of the federal government, there was, naturally, a "weaseling out clause" in the contest. They reserve the right to overrule the popular vote if they want to. Kind of reminds you of the 2000 Presidential Election, doesn't it?
So far, NASA is being mum on whether they will go with "Colbert" or one of the more reasonable, and boring, names. John Yembrick, a NASA spokesman, says they'll make a decision sometime in April. My advice to Yembrick: go with the joke.
I guarantee if "Colbert" wins, Colbert will spend even more time publicizing NASA and space exploration on television. More people will get interested, and that was the original idea of the contest. And it usually doesn't hurt if a governmental agency demonstrates a sense of humor.
I know the dangers of going along with this joke. It's a very slippery slope. Other TV shows will probably want to get their names in space. Some agent's bound to think that "Dancing with The Stars" is a natural. Other shows are going to want to have their names up there, too. Will the next space shuttle be called, "Late Show With David Letterman?" Will the next galaxy astronomers discover be called, "America's Biggest Loser?"
When it comes to naming things and publicity, money always seems to enter the picture. Therefore, I have to admit that I worry a little that the heavens might suffer the same fate as that of so many sports venues. If there can be a "Petco Park," a "U.S. Cellular Field," and a "Staples Center," isn't it just possible that astronomers might change the planets' names, too? And if so, are we really going to be happy when our children's children learn that "Alpo" is the fourth planet from the sun, and the one with the two big moons is called, "Hooters?"
Despite these caveats, I still think NASA should go along with the popular vote. They should be able to draw the line and avoid catastrophic commercial consequences. And if they are worried about making the seemingly smug Stephen Colbert even smugger, the joke might actually be on him. One of the functions of this soon-to-be-named part of the space station will be to house a machine that turns astronauts' urine into drinking water. Would you really like to have that room named after you?