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NASA names space module for moon base ...not Colbert

NASA's new name for the International Space Station's Node 3 is Tranquility. (NASA)
April 14, 2009

Houston, Tranquility Node 3 here, the Colbert has landed.

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 the comedian 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 Stephen Colbert, astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams broke the news that the space agency would not be naming 'Node 3' after Colbert.

"I was assured that my name would be in space! Are you saying NASA is going back on that?" Colbert charged in response to Williams revealing "Tranquility" as the name.

"Your name will be in space in a very important place," she replied. "We've come up with something that will be in Node 3, eventually. It will be launched this summer."

True to form, NASA adapted the comedian's surname to be used for the Treadmill-2, now known as the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT.

NASA's official emblem for the COLBERT. (NASA)

For Node 3, the space agency proved that its poll was not a popularity contest while still choosing one of the names suggested by visitors to its website. "Tranquility" borrows inspiration from the base of the first manned lunar landing 40 years ago this July.

Tranquil, but not serene

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. Like the previous two, Node 3 has multiple ports to which other station components can be attached, as well as the interior configuration to support refridgerator-size racks of equipment.

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. One of the station's bathrooms will also be moved into the node.

Simulated view looking out Tranquility's cupola. (NASA)

Its star attraction however, is the cupola. Literally a room with a view, this six-window dome will offer the six-person crew a place to control robotic arm operations, as well as afford them unparalleled vistas of the Earth below.

They might even catch a glimpse of the Moon.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo lunar module "Eagle" on the Moon's surface. The first words they spoke named the location where they touched down.

"Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed."

Tranquility Base was a reference to the geographical area in which they were in, Mare Tranquillitatis, or as its more commonly known, the Sea of Tranquility.

Composite of Eagle at Tranquility Base. (Ed Hengeveld/NASA)

"Tranquility" was the eighth most popular name written-in by visitors to NASA's website between February 19 and March 20 of this year. Though its impossible to know why so many chose that name, its relation to one of the most notable events in NASA's 50 year history is clear.

"We selected 'Tranquility' because it ties it to exploration and the moon and symbolizes the spirit of international cooperation embodied by the space station," commented Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's space operations manager in a statement released by the agency.

"Tranquility" is also defined as a calm state, or serenity.

The latter was one of the four names NASA itself had put forward for Node 3, and was leading the poll until Colbert's fans began their campaign to name it after the comedian. Serenity's popularity may have had similar entertainment ties; "Serenity" was the title of a 2005 sci-fi film, which in turn was the spin-off of a short-lived television series that gained cult-status.

A name 'fit' for COLBERT

NASA received more than 230,000 write-in votes to name the node "Colbert", surpassing Serenity by 40,000 ballots. The results grabbed headlines and gave rise to the rumor that NASA might name the module's toilet for the tv host.

As it turned out, it was the right idea, but wrong hardware.

The agency instead chose the station's new treadmill, to be launched in August on-board space shuttle Discovery, as the recipient of the Colbert name. Previously referred to simply as Treadmill-2 (T-2), its new moniker describes the equipment as the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or as COLBERT for short.

"Everybody will know that every day somebody will have to jump on the COLBERT to work out, so that will be the words that will be passed down on space-to-ground, "It's time for me to jump on COLBERT," Williams told Colbert.

"I understand that by running on the treadmill, that's what actually powers the entire space station," the comedian claimed in response.

"Well, not exactly," said Williams.

The COLBERT will be the station's second treadmill. The first was called the Treadmill with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization, or TVIS. Both are used by the astronauts to exercise. Without gravity, crew members are subject to bone and muscle mass loss, as well as the weakening of their cardiovascular system. Exercise helps to retain their bodies' condition, making their return to gravity easier and safer.

Suni Williams, who announced the name on "The Colbert Report" on Tuesday evening, set a record running on the TVIS while on the station in 2007. Williams completed the 26-mile Boston Marathon running on the treadmill in time with the racers back on Earth. She finished in four hours, 23 minutes and 46 seconds, as the station flew 210 miles above Russia while traveling 17,500 mph.

Whether astronauts will run future marathons on-board the COLBERT is yet to be seen.

Suni Williams runs on the station's TVIS treadmill. (NASA)

The launch of the treadmill will be the third time Stephen Colbert has been represented on the ISS. In 2008, Garrett Reisman flew a "Wriststrong" bracelet, declaring himself from orbit a member of the "Colbert Nation", and later that year, space tourist Richard Garriott brought Colbert's DNA to the outpost as part of a promotion for a computer game he created.

NASA has a long history of naming space hardware after notable individuals, although they tend to be posthumous honors. For example, the Hubble Telescope was named after Edwin Hubble, an American astronomer who died in 1953, 37 years before the observatory was launched into orbit.

Nor was this the first time that entertainment personalities have been similarly recognized. The crew of Apollo 10 in 1969 named their Moon-bound vehicles "Charlie Brown" and "Snoopy" after the comic strip characters created by Charles Schulz, and in 1976, after a write-in campaign by fans, NASA named the shuttle orbiter "Enterprise" after a fictional starship featured in the sci-fi series, "Star Trek."

In addition to "Colbert", "Serenity" and "Tranquility", other names that ranked in the NASA poll for Node 3 included "Xenu", "Buddy", "Legacy", "Synergy" and "Myyearbook". A total of 1,190,437 ballots were received during the poll.

"You know what? I think a treadmill is better than a node," reasoned Colbert, "because the node is just a box for the treadmill. Nobody says, 'Hey, my mom bought me a Nike box!' They want the shoes that are inside."

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

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