Comedian Stephen Colbert is training to be an astronaut and tossed some tough questions to the crew of space shuttle Atlantis Tuesday to find out what it's like to fly on a 25-year-old spaceship.
"Greetings spacemen, heroes all!" said Colbert during a lighthearted televised interview with the astronauts for his Comedy Central program "The Colbert Report."
Colbert said he's been visiting NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to learn how to be an astronaut and asked for any tips from the six Atlantis spaceflyers. He's already got going to the bathroom in space down pat, he said.
"I'm already practicing peeing in a tube. I'm very good at that," Colbert said.
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Astronaut Piers Sellers told Colbert to practice eating by mashing up his least favorite food in a plastic bag, warming it up and squeezing it out for lunch.
"You could practice falling," Sellers added. "Start small. Start with falling off the sofa and then work up to the roof of your house."
Another big question: How's the mission going?
"The mission is going really well," said Atlantis astronaut Garrett Reisman. "We've got a new antenna on the space station, a new six-back of batteries, a new module docked to the station and generally have defeated the forces of evil. So we're really happy about how things have gone."
Atlantis launched May 14 on a 12-day mission to deliver a new Russian research room and spare parts to the space station. Three spacewalks were performed to deliver the gear and replace batteries on the station. The shuttle is set to land in Florida Wednesday morning at 8:48 a.m. ET.
Battery of questions
Colbert was extremely interested in the batteries the astronauts replaced on the space station.
"What does it run on, like AAs?" he asked.
The space station's solar array batteries are actually much larger and weigh nearly 400 pounds a piece, astronaut Michael Good explained. So the astronauts had to work out to be able to move them around.
That made Colbert suspicious.
"But why would you have to work out? I thought nothing weighed anything in space," the comedian said.
The astronauts laughed and jokingly confessed that Colbert had figured it out. They weren't in space at all.
"Busted, the whole thing's a fraud!" Colbert said. "No wonder they're cancelling the program. It's been a sham the whole time!"
Shuttles flying since 1981
Actually, NASA is retiring the space shuttles this year to make way for new program aimed at sending humans to an asteroid or Mars. After this mission, only two more shuttle flights remain.
The shuttles have been flying since April 1981, with Atlantis making its first flight in October 1985. According to NASA's current schedule, this is the final flight of Atlantis after 32 missions to space and 120 million miles.
"What's the condition of the vehicle?" asked Colbert. "Is like the 'check oil' light on the whole time?"
"Yeah, every once in a while we have to take it to the service department," replied Atlantis commander Ken Ham.
Colbert said earlier that he loved saying the words "Commander Ham."
With the space shuttle program ending soon, Colbert wondered if his plan to seek a career as an astronaut was ill-timed and asked the astronauts if they were dusting off their own resumes for new jobs.
Atlantis pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli said he was scouring local community college calendars for truck driving lessons.
Colbert also wanted to know more about Sellers, who is a British-born NASA astronaut. His accent gave him away, the comedian said.
Sellers assured that while he may be afraid of real aliens in space, he is actually a "legal alien."
"Is he riding back in the space shuttle, or is he riding back in the space lorry?" Colbert asked.
"I will be traveling back in the boot of the space shuttle," Sellers joked. "I'm going to come back as soon as I've got my immigration papers sorted out."
At one point, the video signal dropped out.
"Gentlemen I can't see you anymore. I'm going to assume that space still exists, and you're floating someplace," Colbert said.
Reisman is longtime Colbert fan
Reisman is a longtime fan of Colbert's show on Comedy Central and actually spoke to the comedian from space once before. Colbert interviewed Reisman for his show while the astronaut was living on the International Space Station during a six-month mission in 2008.
Colbert's interest in space exploration have become more apparent lately. Last month, he debated the merits of sending humans and robots into space with noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The treadmill honor
In 2009, he won an online NASA poll to have a room on the International Space Station named after him, but the space agency named the room "Tranquility" instead. As a consolation prize, NASA named a space station treadmill after the comedian. It's called the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT.
Colbert did not ask if the Atlantis crew had a chance to run on his, but in a later interview Reisman said shuttle astronauts did not have the chance. The treadmill's time was already booked solid by the station's own six-person crew.
"The treadmill is actually being heavily used by the station crew," Reisman said. "So unfortunately it there wasn't time to hop on COLBERT and run him into the ground."
At the interview's end, Colbert wished the astronauts well and hoped to see them once they returned to Earth.
"Thank you so much for your courageous exploration of our final frontier," he said. "Please have a safe trip home. We look forward to seeing you back on the good Earth."
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