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Giant leap for a treadmill

Physiologists and spotters put NASA's COLBERT treadmill to the test during a
zero-gravity flight aboard the space agency's C-9B jet aircraft.

The Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (a.k.a. COLBERT) won't be the first piece of exercise equipment in space, but it could be the most famous orbital workout device, thanks to its celebrity acronym.

"I am 'go' to launch me," talk-show host Stephen Colbert declared today in a pre-recorded send-off for NASA's COLBERT treadmill. "Let's light this candle!"

The twists and turns in the tale of the treadmill - which is flying up to the international space station aboard the space shuttle Discovery - would be worth at least two or three gags on "The Colbert Report."

For starters, consider the origins of the acronym: Earlier this year, NASA set up a naming contest for one of the space station's last components, provisionally known as Node 3. The pressurized module, due for launch next February, will eventually house life support systems and connect other "rooms" in the orbiting laboratory. It also will provide one of the station's best views of the cosmos outside, thanks to a dome-shaped cupola.

NASA let the public vote on four choices for Node 3's final name - Earthrise, Legacy, Serenity or Venture - but the agency also allowed write-in votes. And that write-in provision created a classic opening for Colbert's alter-egotism.

Click for video:
Watch Stephen Colbert's
comic send-off to NASA's
space treadmill.

The comedian, who takes on the on-screen persona of a bloviating right-winger, has lent his name to a bald eagle, a leatherback turtle and a species of diving beetle. He once egged on his viewers to register 17 million online votes in a naming contest for a bridge in Budapest. (The big reason why it's not called the Colbert Bridge today is because the rules forbade naming the thing after a living person.)

Getting the "Colbert Nation" to put his name in first place in the NASA contest was a slam-dunk. More than 230,000 write-ins were recorded, meaning that Colbert drubbed second-place "Serenity" by 40,000 votes. But just because you come in first doesn't mean you're the winner: There was no way NASA would name the node after a living person, let alone a cable-channel comedian.

To save face, the space agency looked for something else to name after Colbert. For a time, the rumor mill focused on the space station's $19 million toilet, but eventually someone came up with the idea of putting the COLBERT acronym on the exercise device known as Treadmill 2. The decision was announced by marathoning astronaut Sunita Williams on Colbert's show

As for Node 3, NASA ended up choosing a none-of-the-above name: Tranquility, in honor of the moon base where Apollo 11 touched down 40 years ago. Even today, the comedian couldn't resist giving NASA a comedic tweak today for passing up "Colbert" and going with Tranquility instead. "Yeah. That'll scare the aliens," he said. "They're not gonna mess with Earth now - we might get all relaxed at them."

The COLBERT treadmill patch has become a collector's item.

The COLBERT treadmill caused a sensation on a level not often seen in the world of exercise equipment. If you had the good sense to buy the treadmill's "official" patch, depicting a cartoony Colbert on the run, today you'd have a real collector's item on your hands (or on your jacket). The patch had to be discontinued soon after it came out, because the rights to use Colbert's image turned out to be murky. Today, a patch that typically would sell for $5 or less attracts bids that occasionally range past $100.

It's not as if the treadmill itself is all that remarkable. The space station already has six exercise devices on board, including a different type of treadmill known as the TVIS (Treadmill with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization) that is recessed into the floor of the Russian-built Zvezda service module.

Colbert joked that the new treadmill will help "finally slim down all those overweight astronauts."

"Let's face it, being weightless is mostly just a desperate bid to get away from that bathroom scale every morning," Colbert said. "But you guys and gals are ambassadors to the universe. Don't make us look bad. Put down the astronaut ice cream, tubby. Tubby, tubby, two-by-four, couldn't fit through the air lock door."

Jokes aside, the astronauts' daily treadmill run (plus other workouts amounting to two and a half hours a day) is a matter of self-preservation, not weight loss.

Studies have shown that spacefliers quickly lose bone mass and muscle tone unless they follow a vigorous exercise regimen. Researchers suspect that the lack of gravity basically signals the body that it's OK to let the muscles atrophy and let the bones weaken. Exercise is the best way to override that signal - and in that sense, COLBERT and the other exercise devices are lifesavers, not just a lifestyle choice.

Two treadmills will come in handy now that the space station's long-duration crew has been doubled from three to six.

Off-the-shelf equipment
COLBERT's roots go back to Wisconsin-based Woodway USA, which provided six of its treadmills under the terms of Wyle Laboratories' contract with NASA for biomedical services. "Our treadmill is as close to off-the-shelf as you can get," Eric Weber, Woodway's director of sales and marketing, told me today. 

The devices were modified to have a metal rather than a rubber running surface. The controls were moved off to the side, and a spring tensioner was added so that the treadmill's belt worked properly in zero-G. The treadmill itself was housed in a spring-equipped base to cut down on vibration, gussied up with bungee cords to push the weightless runner down onto the belt, and instrumented with sensors to record the biomedical effects produced by different types of exercise.

The final model is heavier and wider than NASA's TVIS treadmill, and the space agency expects it to be simpler, more reliable and easier to maintain. (Space station astronauts had to give the TVIS treadmill a complete overhaul a couple of months ago.)

Only one of the six Woodway treadmills is actually heading up to the station. The other five are being used for research, development and testing.

The pompous pundit you typically see on "The Colbert Report" might have expressed mock outrage to hear, by way of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, that treadmills originally retailing for about $7,000 ended up costing the government about $6.8 million each. But there was none of that in Colbert's send-off, aired on NASA TV today.

"I just want to say, we are all huge fans here, and it has been a true honor to make merciless fun of you this year," Colbert told the space agency.

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