Apparently NASA is filled with Joss Whedon fans

So, I’m reading the New York Times this morning on my Iphone when I come across this news brief:

NASA’s online contest to name a new room at the International Space Station went awry. The comedian Stephen Colbert won. The name Colbert beat out NASA’s four suggested options in the space agency’s effort to have the public help name the addition. NASA’s mistake was allowing write-ins. Mr. Colbert urged viewers of his Comedy Central show, “The Colbert Report,” to write in his name. And they complied, with 230,539 votes. That beat Serenity, one of the NASA choices, by more than 40,000 votes. Nearly 1.2 million votes were cast by the time the contest ended Friday. NASA reserves the right to choose an appropriate name, and an agency spokesman said NASA would decide in April.

Obviously, the comedy here is drag-and-drop perfect. But what really snapped my head around wasn’t about the Colbert stuff — it was that NASA-picked, second-place name: Serenity.

Because “Serenity” is, of course, the name of the spaceship in the dementedly brilliant Joss Whedon TV show Firefly, which Whedon made into a movie after Fox stupidly cancelled Firefly. And seriously, if you haven’t seen Serenity — the name of the movie — then just drop whatever the hell you’re doing right now and go rent it, because it is, hands down, the best sci-fi movie made in probably a decade; nerds like me watched it with the chest-ripping sensation of watching a Big Damn Trilogy being born, only to weep hot bitter tears that can burn through titanium-reinforced concrete after the movie narrowly failed to earn its investment back, which pretty much dooms any chance of sequels.

But I digress. Sort of. The point is, if “Serenity” was one of the names that NASA itself had picked as a contestant for the contest, I can only suspect — as do many other Whedon fans — that NASA’s internal folks probably a) knew about the Whedon associations, and b) picked it because they’re crazy Whedon fans too.

This would not surprise, given that fact that the mythopoeic internal lives of actual astronomers and astronauts are inextricably entangled with sci-fi; as I’ve blogged before, NASA’s own prose — when it describes the travels of its own space probes — is about as hallucinogenic as Philip K. Dick at his acid-fascinated best/worst. Indeed, I always sort of crack up when I hear the names that space agencies give to their vessels, because they sound so directly plucked from Star Trek: The various parts of the space station are named Destiny, Columbus, Hope, Star, and Dawn. I think they should throw over any pretensions of not being crazed fanboys and begin naming all spacecraft directly after famous sci-fi vessels. “At 7:43 am on Nov. 12, 2009, another successful space shuttle launch took place when the Millennium Falcon blasted off on a crystal-clear Florida morning.”

A side note: When I read that Colbert article, I immediately thought, I bet this story has already been twittered like four million times. (And, of course, yep.) There ought to be a long German word for that: The sensation that, even though you’re not actually logged into Twitter, something you’re looking at is being heavily tweeted, even as you observe it.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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