HOUSTON, Nov. 29, 2008 -- Astronaut Heidi Stefanyshyn Piper is ready to move on. The tool bag is gone and she is tired of talking about it.
In an interview on Saturday, after being asked about it for the umpteenth time, she sighed and said, "It may be a good thing if it gets people to think about the space program and what we are doing up here."
NASA's public relations problem is that they've been there and done that, over and over again. This is the 124th space shuttle mission, and the International Space Station just celebrated its 10th anniversary and it is still not finished.
Yes, the space station is the most complicated engineering project ever undertaken, and astronauts are clearly much smarter than the rest of us, and they are accomplishing remarkable feats in space -- but it is hard for most Americans to care much about the space program when they are worried about keeping their jobs, making house payments and putting food on the table.
During this past mission, what captured interest was the lost tool bag, the concept of turning urine into drinking water and the spiders weaving webs in orbit.
When something quirky happens in space, out of the norm, is when people start to pay attention.
Remember the stuck solar arrays when one of the astronauts started doing leg lifts to cause a vibration to jiggle the solar array loose? How about the broken toilet on the space station earlier this year?
It's the man bites dog theory of news.
When someone slips up in orbit our ears perk up.
Early in this mission, one of the astronauts forgot a camera was recording and uttered one of those seven words you can never ever say on television, or radio, and certainly not on NASA TV. Mission Control didn't hit the mute button until he started muttering about "those stupid idiots." I liked him better for that slip-up.
What if we saw more of that on NASA TV? What if the cameras were live 24 hours a day on the space station and you could peek at the crew anytime you wanted to and see and hear what they were doing, rather than the one hour a day in the morning NASA lets you see a carefully programmed presentation?
There were plenty of engineers at NASA who saw the 24-hour feed from the space station and stopped dead in their tracks when former ISS Commander Peggy Whitson started exercising on the space station in her tight tank top and bike shorts.
The astronauts know part of their job is media relations, politely answering sometimes silly questions, even if they have been asked the same question over and over again. How did you feel when you lost the tool bag? What's it like to be in space?
It's enough to make one miss the bluntness of NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who has no patience for fools, and once remarked at a post shuttle launch briefing, "If you want excitement, watch an episode of 'Desperate Housewives.'"
This is why the note on the front of the daily planning package the crew gets every day during a mission was particularly funny. From the STS 126 Flight Day 14 Execute Package, here is what the Crew is thinking during PAO Events:
Q: What on Earth can the spacewalks be compared with? A: Like fixing your roof at night while wearing diapers, ski-clothes and scuba gear over your pajamas.
Q: Tell us about what you're looking forward to on Thanksgiving Day menu? A: We'll have turkey, corn and cranberry desert, and green bean casserole. Space Food tastes like goldfish food only warmed up.
Q: What do you do with your free time? A: We compete with the most aggressive acrobatics until somebody barfs or hits their head.
Q: Do you have to keep your sense of humor? A; Not a problem – counting the number of times we are asked about the lost tool bag is entertainment enough. Besides we have both spiders and caterpillars.
Q: What is your Thanksgiving Day Wish? A: That I had real gravy. The kind you can only make in gravity.
Q: How does the Urine Processor work? A: It doesn't.
Q: Does the "wake-up" song actually wake you up? A: Yes – with these speakers it sounds like the national anthem being played on an electric shaver.
Q: Do you have a message for folks here? A: We don't even get hazardous duty pay up here. Can you believe that?
Q: What is it like being in space? A: No fresh air, no beer, no TV, no sex and no shoes. Try that for two weeks sometime.
Q: What do you do in your free time? A; Take hundreds of pictures of the north African desert which is the only place on the planet without clouds in late November.
Q: What will you do on Thanksgiving? A: Same as every other day: Lose stuff, look for stuff, and take pictures of stuff. Oh, and use a lot of duct tape.
Now that's a side of NASA we should see more often.