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Node 3 illustration
NASa will announce the new name of the space station’s Node 3 module Tuesday night; will it be the top vote-getter in an online poll, Colbert? (credit: NASA)

NASA gets pwned online

Late Friday afternoon the word came out from NASA: the agency would announce the new name of Node 3 of the International Space Station this Tuesday, April 14th. On the night of the 14th, to be specific, and in a forum that is decidedly untraditional: on the set of the Comedy Central program “The Colbert Report”, a satirical take on the talk shows that populate cable news network lineups.

Suffice it to say that this is not how NASA originally intended to unveil the name for Node 3. Friday’s announcement said that the name was to be announced on April 28th, shortly after the module arrived at the Kennedy Space Center, but that since the hardware’s delivery had been pushed back into May, “the announcement moved to April 14.” That explains the date, but the location is an entirely different story.

To use a phrase from the hacker slang known as “leetspeak”, it means that NASA gets “pwned” by a comedian and a wave of online voters.

The naming of Node 3 is one of a couple of recent examples where NASA has attempted to reach out to the public through the Internet to try and raise awareness of and interest in its missions—a simple form of the concept of “participatory exploration” that some have advocated in recent years (see “Virtual reality and participatory exploration”, The Space Review, June 25, 2007). What the agency is discovering, though, is that by doing so, it loses some control. And if the system isn’t properly set up and explained, it can lead to bizarre, even embarrassing results. Or, to use a phrase from the hacker slang known as “leetspeak”, it means that NASA gets “pwned” by a comedian and a wave of online voters.

L’affaire Colbert, if you will, dates back to late February, when NASA announced an online poll for the name of Node 3. People could vote on one of four pre-selected names: Earthrise, Legacy, Serenity, or Venture. The names were designed to fit into the theme of existing ISS modules, with names like Unity, Destiny, and Harmony; the option of Serenity attracted attention of fans of the short-lived science fiction TV series “Firefly” because the spaceship in that series (as well as the title of a later movie) was also named Serenity. Not surprisingly, Serenity leapt to an early lead.

However, the online vote had a loophole. In addition to the four NASA-sanctioned names, voters could write in a choice of their own. The agency likely intended this to solicit alternatives that fit into the overall theme, and indeed some of the write-ins complied: Tranquility, Synergy, and Vision, among others. However, the agency didn’t appear to anticipate the power of the “Colbert Nation”.

On the March 3 edition of “The Colbert Report”, the comedian mentioned the naming contest, and expressed derision at the four names NASA offered. “Those aren’t space modules, those are organic teas,” he quipped. He then asked his viewers—the so-called “Colbert Nation”—to write in his name. “You are officially mobilized to get that module named after me,” he declared.

Colbert Nation—and others, most likely, attracted by the media attention his effort generated—responded in kind. While Serenity easily beat out the other three NASA-proposed names, with 70 percent of the votes cast for one of the four, Colbert surged to the top of the write-in list. By the time voting closed on March 20, “Colbert” had received 230,539 votes, easily beating out Serenity, which garnered 190,196.

This was not the first time that Colbert’s viewers had manipulated the results of an online naming contest: in 2006 he won an online poll to name a Hungarian bridge; the Hungarian ambassador to the US later went on the show to certify that Colbert had received the most votes but could not have the bridge named after him because, among other things, he was not dead. Colbert was also not the only person to try and influence the results of the Node 3 poll: humorist Dave Barry encouraged readers of his blog to write in “Buddy”; that name finished sixth. Users of relatively obscure social networking sites also tried their own write-in campaigns, hence the presence in the results of “MyYearbook” and “SocialVibe”.

The results put NASA in something of a predicament. According to the official rules: “NASA will take into consideration the results of the voting. However, the results are not binding on NASA and NASA reserves the right to ultimately select a name in accordance with the best interests of the agency, its needs, and other considerations.” In other words, NASA is free to pick whatever name it likes, ignoring Colbert in favor of Serenity or something else.

However, that legalism was apparently missed by many of the people participating, based on online chatter in the last week: many thought that they were participating in a binding vote rather than an opinion poll. And to be fair, it’s easy to see how people could be misled by the original announcement, which called on people to “vote for the module's name online” and stated that the “winning name” would be announced at the module’s unveiling—all of which would suggest to the casual reader that the vote was binding.

Rejecting “Colbert”, then, could alienate those people and generate a backlash of negative publicity for NASA. Worse, one member of Congress has already weighed in on the issue. Shortly after voting closed Congressman Chaka Fattah issued a press release calling on NASA to honor the poll’s results, even if that means naming the module Colbert. “This is not about dollars, but it’s got to make sense to the American people. We insist on democracy in orbit,” said Fattah, who sits on the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that oversees NASA’s budget. One might assume Fattah was joking—he was a guest on “The Colbert Report” back in 2006—but he later told the Washington bureau of the Chicago Tribune that he was serious. “Funding for space exploration is something where getting the public’s interest is challenging, and having Colbert would bring interest to NASA’s program,” he claimed.

That’s right: the mission that landed the first humans on the Moon, considered one of the pinnacles of human achievement, lost to a mission that has not even launched yet.

Interest, perhaps, but one wonders about the precedent that would be set by allowing a module to be named after someone whose virtually only link to space exploration is his ability to crash an online poll. Supporters note that Colbert has taken an interest in space topics in his show on the past, whether it be interviewing an astronaut on the ISS or having astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson on his show, and thus would provide additional publicity to NASA and the ISS if he could regularly refer to “his” module. However, he can be a bit mean-spirited at times: when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords said that the final decision to name the node should belong to NASA, Colbert countered on his show last week that she was jealous because while he would have a node named after him, all she had was half of Tucson—the Arizona city in her district—“and not even the good half.” A moment later: “I’m kidding. There is no good half.”

At least, though, this poll attracted a wave of public interest and attention. The same isn’t necessarily true for another recent NASA effort, called “Mission Madness”. Modeled on the NCAA college basketball championship tournament commonly called “March Madness”, this featured a bracket of 64 NASA missions, from historic through current to future, pitted in a popularity contest to determine, in the words of the NASA press release announcing it, the “greatest mission”. NASA pre-selected the 32 first-round matchups; the winners of each head-to-head vote would move on to the next round, eventually leading to a single winner.

While there were no overt seedings, like in the NCAA tournament, it was clear that NASA took some effort to avoid pitting two marquee missions against each other in the early rounds. In that first round, Apollo 11 faced off against ER-2, a NASA version of the U-2 aircraft used for Earth sciences research; Hubble went up against the Terra Earth observing spacecraft; and the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) took on a balloon program called Superpressure Balloon (SPB). All, on the surface, relatively easy draws.

After the first round of voting, Apollo 11 and Hubble breezed by, picking up 92 and 93 percent of the votes, respectively. But, in a surprise, SPB upset MER, 52 to 48 percent. Moreover, far more votes were cast in this matchup than in any other: while most of the first-round matchups garnered a few thousand votes, this matchup got over 30,000. Clearly there were a lot of fans of these missions—or else a smaller core of more dedicated supporters, voting over and over.

As the competition progressed, it was clear that the latter option better explained the vote results. Despite little awareness of SPB outside NASA (and even within it), the mission rolled up victories, beating Mars Odyssey, ISS Expedition 1, and the Orion crew exploration vehicle to make it to NASA’s version of the Final Four. Joining it there were three other missions that had similarly attracted a core of fans who voted early and often: the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and the New Horizons missions to Pluto. En route to the semifinals SOHO had defeated Skylab, Apollo 8, and the Viking Mars missions; New Horizons had dispatched STS-1 and the two Voyager missions, and LRO won out over both Hubble and Apollo 11. That’s right: the mission that landed the first humans on the Moon, considered one of the pinnacles of human achievement, lost to a mission that has not even launched yet.

the MSL naming contest had no option for a write-in candidate. And for some in the space community, that’s a shame: they would relish the opportunity to send Colbert on a one-way trip to Mars.

Throughout the competition, there were complaints, such as those posted on the blog of “NASA EDGE”, the NASA podcast that organized the contest, that the competition was being abused by supporters of SPB and the other missions who were racking up votes disproportionate with the actual number of people voting. Technically speaking, such ballot-box stuffing was within the rules of the competition: as the original press release stated, people could vote “as many times as they like” while the polls were open. The NASA EDGE staff claimed that federal government privacy policy prevented them from enacting controls that would prevent multiple voting. (Curiously, the rules for the Node 3 naming contest limited people to “up to one vote per user per day” without specifying how that would be monitored.)

However, it’s little surprise that after SPB defeated SOHO in the finals last week, the result got very little publicity by the agency. How could it explain, with a straight face, that a little-known balloon project is considered to be the “greatest mission” in NASA’s 50-year history by the voting public, or at least among those people who voted, and voted frequently?

On the other hand, NASA appears ready to confront Colbert and the Node 3 naming issue head-on, with astronaut Suni Williams’s appearance on The Colbert Report Tuesday night. Colbert himself is quoted in the NASA press release announcing the appearance, leaving one to wonder if he’s in on whatever decision NASA has reached (including a potential compromise where Colbert would “win” the naming rights to the toilet that will be located in the node, rather than the node itself.)

While Colbert might be satisfied with all the additional publicity he’s received, regardless of what name NASA does pick, one wonders if Colbert’s fans might still feel aggrieved if they perceive that NASA didn’t honor the results of the poll. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, the old saying goes, but that’s clearly not the case (ask Bernie Madoff); what sort of wrath could a Colbert Nation scorned generate against NASA?

In the meantime, NASA has appeared to learn a lesson or two from these latest online forays. Recently the agency held another naming competition, this time for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover. Nine finalists, all suggested by students, were offered up for voting late last month. This time, though, there was no option for a write-in candidate. And for some in the space community, that’s a shame: they would relish the opportunity to send Colbert on a one-way trip to Mars.