NASA exploring new horizons: Pop culture

CAPE CANAVERAL — When Discovery flies to the international space station this week, it will deliver a new treadmill named for a TV comedian and pick up a Buzz Lightyear toy.

In another month, a wealthy circus performer will rocket to the space station. Add that to all the Twittering astronauts and NASA suddenly has a fresh, hip look that is attracting audiences that may have ignored the space program in the past.

“More normal folks,” the chief of NASA’s space operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, says of NASA’s newer audience. Gerstenmaier admits he’s a rather humdrum engineer.

Intentional or not, the stars finally seem aligned for NASA in the pop culture department.

“It doesn’t do us any good for us just to go up there and quietly do our missions if nobody knows what you’re doing up there,” Discovery’s commander, Rick Sturckow, said in a recent interview.

Discovery and its crew of seven are scheduled to blast off early Tuesday, carrying about 17,000 pounds of supplies and equipment to the space station. It is the second station visit in as many months for NASA.

Sturckow and his crewmates agree lighthearted touches — like the treadmill named after Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, the Buzz Lightyear toy that’s spent more than a year at the space station and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte’s trip — are good ways to publicize the more workaday events unfolding in orbit.

The treadmill, for the record, is officially known as the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, which spells COLBERT.

NASA came up with the moniker after Colbert campaigned earlier this year to have a future space station chamber named after himself. He won the online poll for naming rights to the room, but NASA went with Tranquility, as in “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” The treadmill was the consolation prize.

NASA invited Colbert to the launch, but said he will be unable to attend. Instead, a message from the comedian will be broadcast on NASA TV on Monday evening, after Discovery is fueled for liftoff.

Gerstenmaier, who appeared on “The Colbert Report” back in March, punted when asked at a news conference last week if NASA should tap into its more human side.

“You should answer that yourself,” he replied. “We’re engineers. It’s the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill.”