Displaying both a sense of history and humor, NASA on Tuesday revealed "Tranquility" as the name of its newest space station module, while christening a new astronaut exercise device after comedian Stephen Colbert, whose name led their public opinion poll for what to name the orbiting outpost's new room.
Appearing on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report", the late night satirical news show hosted by Colbert, astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams broke the news that the space agency would not be naming the new Node 3 module after the comedian.
Instead, the space agency gave him the consolatory honor as the namesake for the International Space Station's (ISS) upgraded treadmill.
"We've decided that the Node 3 will be called 'Tranquility,'" Williams told a shocked-looking Colbert as the audience booed in protest.
"Wait a second!" Colbert exclaimed. "I was assured that my name would be in space. Are you saying that NASA's going back on that?"
Williams assured Colbert his name would fly in space attached to the Tranquility node's new treadmill, the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT.
"I think a treadmill is better than a node, you know why? Because the node is just a box for the treadmill," Colbert said. "Nobody says 'Hey, my mom bought me a Nike box.' They want the shoes that are inside."
Node 3 name game
Node 3, the space agency proved that its poll was not a popularity contest while still choosing one of the many names suggested by visitors to its Web site.
Although it is impossible to know why so many chose "Tranquility", the name is related to one of the most notable events in NASA's 50 year history.
[The Associated Press reported that "Tranquility" was the eighth-most-popular write-in suggestion. The four names placed on the ballot by NASA were Serenity, Legacy, Earthrise and Venture, which Colbert earlier said were more appropriate for herbal teas than for spaceships.]
Tranquility Base was the touchdown site for Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing, 40 years ago this July.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon, exploring part of the geographical area known as Mare Tranquillitatis, or the Sea of Tranquility.
The Tranquility node will join similar modules "Unity" and "Harmony", which are already part of the ISS, when it is launched in February 2010 by space shuttle Endeavour.
Tranquility will be used to house the outpost's life support systems, including facilities for producing the oxygen that the crew breathes and recycling their urine into drinkable water.
Its star attraction however, is the Cupola. Literally a room with a view, this six-windowed dome will offer the station's six-person crew a place to control robotic arm operations, as well as afford them unparalleled vistas of the Earth rotating below, if not perhaps the moon above.
With the Node named Tranquility, NASA needed a way to let Colbert down easy after he encouraged his fans — members of the "Colbert Nation" — to suggest his name instead.
True to form, NASA adapted the comedian's surname to be used for the space station's second treadmill, launching in August. Previously referred to simply as Treadmill-2, it has now been redubbed COLBERT.
Williams said that every day when astronauts exercise on the new treadmill, they'll see his face on the patch and have to tell Mission Control "it's time to jump on COLBERT."
NASA received more than 230,000 write-in votes to name the node "Colbert", surpassing the next runner-up, Serenity by 40,000 ballots.
["Serenity" happens to be the name of a 2005 cult science-fiction movie, which may have boosted its numbers.]
The results grabbed headlines and gave rise to the rumor that NASA might name the module's toilet for the TV host.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA's space operations chief, said the space agency has invited Colbert to its Florida spaceport to watch the COLBERT treadmill launch into space in August.
Colbert has also been invited to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to try out a version of the treadmill which astronauts use for training.
"And however far the space station goes, my treadmill will always have gone a few miles more," Colbert said.
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