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Stephen Colbert’s Space Treadmill Ready for Blast Off

Can a Comedian Take Over the Space Station?
Comedian Stephen Colbert has urged viewers of "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central to write-in his name for NASA's naming contest regarding a new space station module.
CREDIT: Erin Patrice O'Brien/Comedy Central

NASA is poised to launch a new treadmill named for comedian Stephen Colbert to the International Space Station on the shuttle Discovery on Tuesday and at least one astronaut has taken it for a test spin. But what's it like, running in space?

Astronaut Sunita Williams, who lived aboard the space station for almost seven months in 2007, ran a marathon in space during her trip, making her an expert of sorts on jogging in orbit.

"I tried a COLBERT mockup at Johnson Space Center," Williams has said, adding that the treadmill is broader than one on the station today. "So you don't have to watch out where your feet go. It allows a wider, more natural gait."

Still, it?s a strange experience, one in which sweat floats and your feet might, too.

The new treadmill will launch alongside 15,200 pounds (6,894 kg) of new science gear and supplies. It will complement the space station's array of exercise equipment that helps astronauts fight the bone loss and muscle decay associated with space travel.

Discovery is slated to launch Tuesday at 1:36 a.m. EDT (0536 GMT) from NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin a 13-day mission to the International Space Station.

C.O.L.B.E.R.T. by any other name

Colbert's name on the new machine is a consolation prize to the host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" after his fans won a NASA poll to name the newest space station module earlier this year. Voters chose "Colbert" for the module, but NASA opted for the more staid moniker "Tranquility," reserving "Colbert" for the treadmill.

With bureaucratic flair, NASA managed to convert the name "Colbert" into a complex acronym: the device is officially titled the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill - C.O.L.B.E.R.T.

Discovery commander Rick Sturckow said that he and his crew don?t plan to do much more than deliver the treadmill, but he recognizes the popularity Colbert?s name may add to it, even if it came out of an online poll originally reserved for a new station room.

?I think it?s important to broaden NASA?s reach and pick up other audiences,? Sturckow said in a recent interview. ?So if they want to have a contest to try and name something and that works into something else, and it wasn?t what it was initially started out to be?I still think that it?s a net gain for NASA.?

NASA invited Colbert to watch Discovery launch his namesake into space, but he was unable to attend. Instead, NASA will broadcast a television message from Colbert tonight on NASA TV.

COLBERT will be the second treadmill for the station's six-member crew. The one in place now, called the Treadmill with Vibration Isolation System - TVIS, allows astronauts to run without vibrating delicate microgravity science experiments in adjacent labs.

"Just getting ready to run is a workout when you're weightless,? Williams said. ?Before all my training runs up there, I had to hook the toes of one foot under a handrail to keep from floating around while I struggled to put my sock and shoe on my other foot."

The astronauts also have a simple solution to keeping their feet firmly planted while running in zero gravity: bungee cords. "You have to strap yourself to the treadmill," Williams said.

Space marathon

In 2007, Williams effectively ran the Boston Marathon on the space station's treadmill, wrapping herself in bungee cords for the 26.2-mile race. She missed the cheering crowds. "In space it's a little bit lonely," she said. But her crewmates rooted for her and floated slices of oranges to her while she ran.

Inside the close, still quarters of the space station, there are also no gentle breezes.

"Sweat globs onto you. It doesn't evaporate," Williams said. "I was soaking wet. During the marathon my hair was so sopping it flopped right in my face. We have little fans blowing on us but they don't do much good."

She recovered faster after the space marathon than she did after running on Earth. "When you're floating, your muscles get to rest, so you can totally relax when you finish running - it's like being in a pool," she said.

But afterward she did not feel the "endorphin effect," or runner's high that long-distance efforts can provide. "I'm not sure why," she said. "We are loaded with only about 60 percent of our Earth weight on TVIS and its harness system, so maybe I just didn't work hard enough."

After the run, Williams longed for a hot shower. "A sponge bath just isn't the same!" she said. Neither did she have a washer and dryer for cleaning her sweat-soaked running clothes. "I hung my drenched clothes near a fan and tied my sneakers to a handrail to air them out."

SPACE.com will provide complete coverage of Discovery's STS-128 mission to the International Space Station with Managing Editor Tariq Malik and Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.

 

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