It started as a joke and will end up at the International Space Station. After comedian Stephen Colbert discovered NASA was soliciting names for Node 3 of the ISS in an online poll, the host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" urged his viewers to ignore NASA's suggestion of "Serenity" and suggested his own.
Colbert generated 230,539 write-ins after nightly appeals on his show for his viewers to jam the NASA mailbox. Colbert walked away with the win, trumping Serenity by more than 40,000 votes. NASA, though, reserved the right to reject the online winning name, and it did.
However, NASA proved it had a sense of humor by agreeing to name a treadmill under development for the ISS after Colbert: the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill. The COLBERT will be delivered to the ISS as part of the space shuttle's Discovery mission scheduled to launch Aug. 25.
"I think it's great for NASA that Mr. Colbert got his audience interested in the space station," Curt Wiederhoeft, project manager for the treadmill, said in June. "Comedy Central attracts a lot of younger viewers, and the space program's going to need the next generation's support and interest."
The COLBERT, once simply known as T-2, is no ordinary treadmill. Engineers started with a medical treadmill available to anyone on Earth. NASA asked Wyle to nickel plate the parts and make some other modifications, including elastic straps that fit around the shoulders and waist to keep the runner from rocketing across the space station with the first hard step.
Engineers also faced the serious problem of keeping the treadmill from shaking the whole station with every step taken since the ISS is floating just like the astronauts and wants to react against any movement. Even small actions can shake up delicate microgravity experiments taking place inside the station's laboratories.
While another, older treadmill on the ISS relied on a powered system of gyroscopes and mechanisms to reduce vibrations, the COLBERT's Vibration Isolation System was designed to work without power and be more reliable than its predecessor. The COLBERT rests on springs that are hooked to dampeners. That unit is connected to a standard-sized rack that has been extensively reinforced to handle the power produced by COLBERT users. The rack alone weighs 2,200 pounds.
The one tradeoff? Perhaps fitting for a treadmill named after Stephen Colbert, it is loud.
"Noise and reliability are fighting against each other here," Wiederhoeft said. "With a lot more time we could have had both quiet and reliable. We went for reliable, and did what we could with noise."
ISS astronauts are expected to spend about 20 hours putting the whole thing together, including the vibration system. After that, the only care COLBERT should need is an occasional greasing of its bearings. The treadmill is designed to last the life of the station. Although it is built to handle 150,000 miles of running, it will likely see about 38,000 miles during its time in orbit, Wiederhoeft said.