Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Out of This World PR

This article also appears in

How a Comedian Outwitted Some Rocket Scientists
I have been fascinated by our space program for as long as I can remember. Indeed, one of my earliest memories was watching John Glenn lift off in Friendship 7 in 1962 and seeing my mother cry. She said she didn't know if he would make it back.

Yes, spaceflight is serious business. But Stephen Colbert, the outstanding political satirist of Comedy Central, knows how to send us over the moon at NASA's expense.

You may have heard that NASA launched an on-line contest to help name a new module (now referred to as Node 3) for the International Space Station (ISS). Hoping to follow the tradition of naming past modules with lofty, cosmic names (Node 1 was named Unity, Node 2 was named Harmony), NASA opened up voting with Earthwise, Legacy, Serenity and Venture. They also allowed write-in votes.

Here's where Mr. Colbert comes in. This man is the Donald Trump of comedy. He has already managed to get a new species of spider named after him (Aptostichus stephencolberti) and a flavor of Ben and Jerry's ice cream (Stephen Colbert's AmeriCone Dream). In 2006, he asked viewers of his show to submit his name to Hungary's Ministry of Transport for their on-line effort to name a new bridge over the Danube River. It was reported that Colbert won the first round of voting with over 17 million votes. I should note that the population of Hungary is about 9.9 million. The Ministry then changed the rules.

For the NASA contest, a total of 1,190,437 votes were cast. Colbert scored 230,539 votes, outscoring Serenity by more than 40,000 votes. So, what does NASA do? Well, according to, agency personnel are floating the idea of naming the Station's new toilet in the module "Colbert." This is proof that NASA should stick to space and aeronautics and not venture into comedy. A Colbert space toilet isn't funny - I think it's demeaning.

Although the rules of the contest state that "the results are not binding on NASA" and "NASA reserves the right to modify these Contest Rules at any time," what happened to fair and square? But being an optimist, I'm wondering if there's a win-win in this somewhere.

NASA has abbreviations and acronyms for everything, so why not now? Here's my idea: For Stephen T. Colbert, let's come up with something space-like using his initials. Node 3 could become the STC - Serenity Transorbital Compartment. Or something like that. NASA gets to use the Serenity name and Colbert gets his initials immortalized (at least until the ISS burns up in the atmosphere after its service life is over).

NASA could embrace this situation. Why not invite Colbert to tour the STC mock-up or to the actual launch at the Cape? Why not have him on a video link with the orbiting crew during the taping of his show? Sure, he'll make fun and get some laughs but these would be sure fire ways for the agency to make science more accessible and gain a huge audience.

So, I've done my part to help solve this planetary crisis. Now it's time for NASA to learn a few communication tips:
  • Don't ask for something that you don't want to hear.
  • Changing the rules makes one look like a sore loser.
  • In the age of on-line vote stuffing, enforce the one person, one vote rule.
  • Plan strategically, and think through the intended and unintended consequences of any action.
  • Play to your strengths - science not satire.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Your posting is definitely the most original thinking I've seen on this issue. Kudos for brilliance!