How Astronauts Can Become Media Stars
A Bob Hope TV special with "I Dream of Jeannie" star, Barbara Eden, and the crew of Apollo 7.
Credit: Roger Launius

Astronauts who set out to one day travel among the stars have sometimes – like famed moonwalker Buzz Aldrin – become stars in their own right on Earth.

The appearances of NASA astronauts on TV talk shows, reality shows and science fiction dramas reflect not just changes in the astronaut corps, but also a dynamic media landscape with more public outlets than ever.

Even long-retired astronauts pop up in television and other appearances over the years. Aldrin, the 80-year-old veteran of the first moon landing by Apollo 11, is set to compete in the new season of the TV show "Dancing with the Stars,” which starts on Monday.

"The one thing you can say about him is that he's been in there every day pitching and trying to share spaceflight with the public," said Roger Launius, space history curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, of Aldrin. "He doesn't stop. He could if he wanted."

Aldrin's willingness to make such appearances may not represent the norm for everyone in the astronaut corps. But plenty of other current and former astronauts have also shared the public spotlight on late night talk shows, reality TV shows such as "Survivor," home improvement shows and even on Comedy Central.

The good old days

Public perception of astronauts and NASA has almost certainly changed over the years, but not necessarily because the American public of 50 years ago was inherently more curious about astronauts.

"People like to look back lovingly on the 1960s and talk about how engaged the public was, but I'm not sure that was true," Launius told SPACE.com.

Astronauts in the early space program had a few publicity advantages, Launius explained.

A bigger proportion of TV watchers saw astronauts taking part in variety shows hosted by the likes of Ed Sullivan and Red Skelton, because only a few TV channels existed. The same logic applied for the Bob Hope Christmas Specials.

The number of American space explorers has also ballooned since the early days of NASA, from the first seven Mercury astronauts to now more than 150 astronauts. That plus more astronauts flying in space has perhaps made it more difficult for individual faces to stick in the minds of the public.

New astronauts for new media

New astronauts also face a much more fragmented audience that has split its attention between new media on the Internet and hundreds of TV channels now available via cable and satellite.

But the bigger pool of astronaut candidates has also provided an upside, Launius said. Many more astronauts come from science, engineering and other backgrounds rather than just the military, and so more of them may feel comfortable being in the limelight in the first place.

Garrett Riesman, a NASA astronaut and flight engineer who spent time living and working aboard the International Space Station from 2008-2009, made a live appearance via satellite from the space station on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report." He spent the interview casually cracking jokes with comedian Stephen Colbert, despite a transmission lag.

Colbert apparently likes putting astronauts on TV.

Astronaut Sunita Williams also appeared on the show in 2009 to break the news that NASA did not name a space station room after the comedian despite the fact that he won an online poll. NASA named the room Tranquility, after Aldrin’s Apollo 11 moon base with crewmate Neil Armstrong. The agency named a treadmill after Colbert.

Riesman also made a cameo as a space marine during the final episode of the sci-fi TV drama "Battlestar Galactica," though the scene may not have made the final cut. Fellow astronauts Michael Fincke and Terry Virts had an appearance during the final episode of "Star Trek: Enterprise." Fincke even got a line or two in with Enterprise captain Jonathan Archer (actor Scott Bakula).

Still, fame for fame's sake does not drive most astronauts, according to astronaut David Wolf. He also serves as chief of the Astronaut Office Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Branch.

"It's not a particular agenda of NASA or the astronauts to make the astronauts popular," Wolf said. "We want to communicate value of the [space] program and the experiences."

The point of it all

Wolf has spaceflight experience that includes a stay aboard the now-defunct Russian Mir space station and multiple space shuttle flights, but he has also found time to share his experiences in the media.

The Indianapolis-born astronaut has made many appearances on local Indiana TV stations, and is a regular guest on "The Bob and Tom Show," a nationally-syndicated radio show. He also spent time in space helping to answer YouTube video questions, posted mainly by children and teens, during a space shuttle Endeavour mission in July 2009.

"All people unfortunately don't get to experience spaceflight or the space program," Wolf noted. "And I feel it's critically important that those of us who do [experience spaceflight] attempt our best to communicate it to the very public that funds and pays for it."

The payoff may come in the end from inspiring not just the public, but also a new generation of astronauts. Wolf recalled being a young boy and watching astronauts talk about spaceflight with famed news commentator Walter Cronkite on a black-and-white TV.

"I would listen to the astronauts and listen to every word," Wolf said. "I knew that I could do that, and I wanted to do that."