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NASA chooses history over comedian in naming contest

Posted: April 14, 2009

The international space station module built to house life support equipment and a panoramic observation cupola has been given a name: Tranquility.

An artist's concept of Tranquility module attached to the station. Credit: NASA
Constructed in Italy under the technical identifier Node 3, the multi-hatch connecting module received the official name following an online poll that had taken on a life of its own.

NASA's website invited the public to vote on various choices like Serenity and Earthrise or submit suggestions. Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's nightly "The Colbert Report," seized on the opportunity and urged viewers to write in his name.

And when the voting ended March 20, "Colbert" had received the most support in the non-binding poll that saw some 1,190,437 users vote or submit suggestions.

The space agency used his show to unveil the name Tuesday night.

"Nation, I'm so pumped. Folks, I feel like a kid in a candy store who is having a space station node named after him. Why? Because tonight I'm having a space station node named after me!" Colbert told his cheering audience.

"And just to get into the space mood, I've taken a bunch of cough syrup, so it feels like I am floating."

But there to crush Colbert's ego and announce the real name was astronaut Suni Williams, a former station resident who has logged 195 days in space.

Despite the comedian's efforts, the space agency opted to select Tranquility, another write-in suggestion, as the name in commemoratation of the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 and man's first landing on the moon.

"The public did a fantastic job and surprised us with the quality and volume of the suggestions," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations.

"Apollo 11 landed on the moon at the Sea of Tranquility 40 years ago this July. We selected 'Tranquility' because it ties it to exploration and the moon, and symbolizes the spirit of international cooperation embodied by the space station."

The COLBERT's logo. Credit: NASA
Even though Colbert didn't get his name on the module, NASA has decided to call the station's new treadmill the COLBERT, a clever acronym standing for the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill.

"We don't typically name U.S. space station hardware after living people and this is no exception," Gerstenmaier joked. "However, NASA is naming its new space station treadmill the 'Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill,' or COLBERT. We have invited Stephen to Florida for the launch of COLBERT and to Houston to try out a version of the treadmill that astronauts train on."

The COLBERT will be hauled up to the station by shuttle Discovery's STS-128 mission in August. The treadmill's eventual home will be inside Tranquility once the new module is installed and activated.

"Actually, I think (the) treadmill is better than a node. You know why? Because the node is just the box for the treadmill. Nobody says 'hey, my mom bought me a Nike box.' They want the shoes that are inside," Colbert said on Tuesday's show.

"And however far the space station goes, my treadmill will always have gone a few miles more."

An illustration of Tranquility. Credit: European Space Agency
Tranquility is scheduled for delivery to the Kennedy Space Center from Europe next month. Its launch to the space station is targeted for February aboard shuttle Endeavour's STS-130 mission.

The module will be mounted to the port side of the station's existing Unity connecting node to house eight refrigerator-sized racks of environmental control and life support systems. According to NASA, those systems will include:

  • Oxygen Generation System that takes the station's water and splits it apart into hydrogen, which gets vented into space, and oxygen, which is returned into the cabin for the crew to breathe.
  • Atmosphere Revitalization System that controls the station's carbon dioxide levels and maintains the temperature and atmospheric pressure at comfortable levels.
  • Water Recovery System and Urine Processor Assembly that take waste water from the station's shower and toilets and purifies it, separating any contaminants and making it safe for the crew to drink.
  • Waste and hygiene compartment that provides a place for the crew to shower and use the bathroom in a way that allows the station to process the majority of the water used onboard so that it may be used again, greatly lessening the need for resupply flights from Earth.

In addition, the cupola will be launched with Tranquility to provide the space station with an unrivaled area for observing and photography through its six rectangular windows and one circular overhead window, plus hold the astronauts' workstation for controlling the outpost's robotic arm.

Endeavour's crew launching Tranquility will be led by commander George Zamka, with pilot Terry Virts and mission specialists Bob Behnken, Nicholas Patrick, Kay Hire and Steve Robinson.