NASA's Biggest Job On This Shuttle Flight: Milking Publicity

The latest space shuttle mission opens up a new, bold era in NASA history -- the desperate attempt to remain hip and relevant and therefore worthy of federal budget dollars.

Commentators have pointed out how the agency seems to be embracing pop culture, but it seems to be getting to the point where it's less like NASA and more like NASCAR -- but instead of cars festooned with sponsor decals, we've got space stations packed with publicity-generating machines.

Let's take a look at what this latest mission involves:

1. The COLBERT treadmill. We'll give NASA points for this one; they played it pretty well. Stephen Colbert famously won a write-in campaign to have a new space-station node named after him; NASA refused to do that, but came up with a stretch of an acronym so that the new treadmill being installed is called the COLBERT. Of course, NASA officials didn't really seem happy with it in a pre-flight press conference. Asked if NASA should do more "fun" stuff like the COLBERT, one replied "You should answer that yourself. We're engineers. It's the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill."

So the memo about the new, hip NASA hasn't gotten full distribution yet.

2. Buzz Lightyear on board. A Buzz Lightyear doll has been stashed on the ISS for a while; it will return on this shuttle, where it will be taken to Disney World for a parade with Buzz Aldrin, who will also probably be at the ribbon-cuttings for two supermarkets, a Starbucks and a Pizza Hut that day.

Again, though, the playful side seemed to be well-hidden: The subject didn't come up until a TV reporter asked about it. And got, in response, a dour "Honestly, Buzz has spent a lot of time stowed. We don't bring him out and play with him."

3. The Oakland Raider fan. Astronaut Jose Hernandez, a former migrant worker now living in Houston, is a Raider fan, apparently. So he's put out word he's bringing a team flag up to the ISS.

The Oakland Raiders? An utterly inept team that hasn't been good since forever, is resting on its laurels, has soaked taxpayers for over-budget facilities, and is a favorite of street gangs? This is what NASA wants to associate with? Well, actually, take away the gang part and you could say it's a good fit.

4. The missionary relic. For all the non-Raider fans, another astronaut will be taking up a piece of the plane involved in an incident, apparently famous in church circles, where missionaries were stranded and killed ("martyred" according the Christians) in Ecuador 50-odd years ago. One of the missionaries was named Nate Saint; too bad he wasn't Catholic or we could have a St. Saint. Why this religious token is flying is unclear, but then again an Apollo astronaut did ESP experiments up there, so why not include other paranormal beliefs?

5. The circus dude. Another space tourist pissing away millions of dollars for a brief joy ride, but this time he's an acrobat. Which is kind of silly, since in a zero-gravity environment Queen Latifah could be an acrobat. But Guy Laliberte is one of the founders of Cirque de Soleil, so we're sure there will be an overblown production, complete with synthesizer music, documenting his trip and bringing NASA some pub. (He'll be joining the others at the ISS via a Russian Soyuz.)

Oh, and if that's not enough, astronauts are now Twittering their asses off in various languages. `Cause the kidz like it.

Come to think of it, we're probably not too far away from sponsor decals plastered all over the walls.

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