NASA's naming contest for a new space station module now faces a fresh challenger in the form of comedian Stephen Colbert.
Colbert urged fans to put his name in the running on Tuesday's episode of his fake-conservative show "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, after dismissing the four NASA-chosen names Earthrise, Legacy, Serenity and Venture.
"Those aren't space modules, those are organic teas," Colbert said. "But you know what name would look fantastic on the side of that module? Colbert!"
Viewers of the show responded quickly. By Wednesday, Colbert celebrated seeing his name rocket to the top of the write-in list, beating out former favorite "Xenu" which refers to a galactic ruler in Scientology's teachings.
"Folks, I'm telling you, if we keep this up until the contest ends on March 20, my name will live forever or at least until that node burns up in a fiery reentry," Colbert said on Wednesday's show. "Which is how I'd like to go out myself."
Node 3 is scheduled for launch in 2009, and contains eight fridge-sized racks that can house much of the space station's life support systems. An observation deck attachment would offer astronauts sweeping views of both Earth and space, with six windows that also allow space station residents to see what they're doing when controlling the International Space Station's 57-foot robotic arm.
This marks only the second time that NASA has sought public input for naming a piece of U.S. space station hardware. The Harmony module was named by 2,200 students who entered NASA's naming contest for Node 2. By contrast, 169,000 people have voted online at NASA's naming contest site so far.
The NASA-chosen name Serenity, which shares the name of a spaceship in the cult favorite television series "Firefly", continues to maintain a huge lead with more than 66,000 votes, according to NASA. But a surge of votes has given Colbert 29,000 in just two days, enough for second overall. The trailing vote-getters include Xenu (9,200), Earthrise (4,200), Legacy (3,500) and Venture (3,200).
"We think that the 'Colbert' entry is great, and are excited that Mr. Colbert and his audience have taken an interest in the contest," said Jacob Keaton, space station program analyst and manager of the Name the Node Contest.
Keaton also told SPACE.com that there were no special provisions for dealing with unusual or downright wacky names, but that NASA would use the public's opinion as a large part of the final decision.
The International Space Station previously made an appearance on "The Colbert Report" when Colbert received an orbital call from astronaut Garrett Reisman. The comedian bolstered his claim to Node 3 by saying that the space station owed him for the publicity.
"I already gave it the Colbert bump when I talked to astronaut Garrett Reisman when he was posted up there," Colbert noted on Tuesday. "Oh and surprise, it's now the number one space station in orbit."
The International Space Station is currently the only continuously crewed outpost in orbit. The $100 billion orbital lab is the result of a 16-nation partnership.
Colbert also referred to when video game designer Richard Garriott brought a digital version of Colbert's DNA up to the space station.
"And as we all know, once your DNA is on something, it's yours," Colbert said. "It works with break room doughnuts."
However, Keaton pointed out that "Mr. Colbert has some catch-up work to do if he wants to beat Serenity," noting that the frontrunners may yet change over the remaining two weeks.
"I can?t say before the contest closes whether Mr. Colbert can win or not, though we wish him the best of luck," Keaton said.
Click here to cast your vote at NASA's Node 3 Web site through March 20.
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