STAR TANNERY, Virginia — Comedian Robert Klein once pointed out that astronaut Neil Armstrong had to be the classiest guy in the world because he could have made a boat load of money if, when taking that first step on the moon, he shouted, "Coca Cola!"
We've come a long way in those 40 years. For one thing, NASA is no longer under an assassinated president's directive to achieve a major accomplishment by the end of the decade. Most of the time we can't remember if we've got people up in the space shuttle or not and the only time we think of satellites circling the earth is when the TV signal goes out during bad weather.
Since that first moonwalk, the space program has been a tough sell, even more so in this economy when people are more concerned about putting food on the table than a person into space.
So you can't blame NASA for trying to draw people into the process and get them excited again about the space program by opening to public suggestion the naming of a module of the space station.
The decision ended up being more controversial than planned when Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's Colbert Report urged his fans to write in his name, an appeal that resulted in his name being the clear winner, topping the second place NASA option of "Serenity."
At first I'll admit I was rather glib about the prospect. Why not? What a perfect statement of what our society is all about: promotion and self-aggrandizing celebrity. Obviously this is what Colbert is satirizing with his campaign, so why not? If he can get them to take it that far, it says more about our society than it does about the space program.
And it has a certain ring to it when said with the names of the other modules of the space station: Unity, Harmony, Colbert. Yeah. It blends.
It's hard, though, to take such a jaded view when it comes to something that may outlive generations.
Let's face it, the broader scope of the space program is one we or several generations after us will never see. Certainly we're learning things from the space station that are relevant to the present - they're not up there doing crossword puzzles after all. But ultimately it's all about stepping off this tiny island planet that, in cosmic terms, is only here for a flicker of a moment; Colbert's celebrity status - even less.
Here in the U.S. we've kept the space program pristine from commercialism. We didn't cave when Russia celebrated the demise of communism by selling seats for a space flight to the highest bidder (Why would you trust a country that at one time couldn't afford to bring home someone they flung up there to orbit Earth until someone had the cash to bring him back down?). So far, no one has sold advertising space on the outside of the shuttle and we've yet to hear Houston report, "We have successful liftoff from the Taco Bell Launch Pad."
Honestly, I like Colbert and I enjoy his show. So I'm hoping the satire won't go much further. I hoping that someone I admire for his layered delivery that is both heavy-handed and delicate all at one time, is also cognizant of the fact that the International Space Station is not a frat house.
NASA, meanwhile, seems to be in a sort of waiting mode and won't divulge the new space node's name until next week, saying "we're working with some folks." I'm sure they're thinking the Colbert name could be great public relations for a program that the public perceives as a financial black hole. They must realize that the program just doesn't have the same idealistic aura about it for people in their 20s and 30s as it does for the generations that grew up watching every single launch on a television wheeled into their classroom.
What I really hope is that NASA is stalling an announcement so Colbert can make his point. Or perhaps Colbert can deliver a "thanks, but no thanks" speech, having proven how crass we've become as a society because we even considered naming part of the space station after a TV celebrity.
In fact, I'm sure that Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), who offered up the opinion that NASA should follow through since Colbert "won fair and square," merely thought the question was just a joke. I will give him the benefit of the doubt.
I am sure it will be Serenity in the end.
I have to believe the grownups are still in charge.
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