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Getting Colbert
It began as a class project, designed to answer a need.

It ended Wednesday, with comedian Stephen Colbert telling anyone watching his promotional video about how much he loves space, and that now "I love space even more because NASA is doing great things at the International Space Station. Besides working around the clock to create new flavors of astronaut ice cream ... they're also developing new vaccines for salmonella, MRSA (a staph infection), pneumonia..."

In between, Jason Lou, a contract specialist with NASA Langley's procurement office; and Lisa Scott Carnell, a Langley medical researcher, learned some things about themselves and got a bit of a thrill rubbing elbows in show business.

They are members of the recently graduated class of NASA FIRST (Foundations of Influence, Relationships, Success and Teamwork), which seeks out promising leaders from among young civil servants.

Part of NASA FIRST's year-long program involves putting together a project, and the two and their advisor, David LeDoux, met with Cindy Lee, NASA Langley's associate director, to determine needs.

"She said 'outreach, outreach, outreach,' " said Lou. "It turns out that is an issue with every single research center.

"We're here, we do cool things. But, while general public has good will toward the agency, it doesn't have a full grasp of the things we do. For a lot of people, NASA was the shuttle and when the shuttle went away ... And for a research center, it's even tougher getting the message out."

So the message became the project. But how best to tell it?

"Question: People would say what does NASA do?" Lou said. "We used a paradigm shift. What doesn't NASA do?

Stephen Colbert (center), flanked by Jason Lou (left) and Lisa Scott-Carnell
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Stephen Colbert (center), flanked by Jason Lou (left) and Lisa Scott-Carnell. Credit: NASA/Jason Lou

NASA helps win Olympic gold medals, works in alternative energy and advanced materials used for medical procedures. Things that touch people's lives were the things we were going for."

Said Scott Carnell: "We were trying to think of different avenues. My background is in medical research and people can really relate to that. So we focused on the medical avenue."

The vehicle was another story.

The first thought was an hour-long documentary.

"It was going to be Oscar moment with red carpet at Langley, said Lou. "Shoot for the stars."

That idea was shot down by budget and time restrictions, and by the reality of the logistics involved in putting together that kind of project.

"Then we were going to do a 20-minute segment and get different people," said Scott Carnell. "Then, after talking with some people in (Strategic Relationships Office), we were told if we wanted to go big we had to get it down to about a minute. Well, OK."

What do you do with a minute? Not so many years ago, Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson used it to talk about space technology being adapted to medical imaging. Helen Hayes and Whoopi Goldberg used 30 seconds to talk about adapting lunar rover controls to help the handicapped drive automobiles.

"We wanted to make it powerful and impactful, and if we just used an average person to speak for us, nobody would listen to them anymore than they would listen to me," said Scott Carnell. "We said we needed a celebrity."

How do you get a celebrity? They talked with Sheri Beam of SRO, who suggested contacting publicists of potential speakers, so Scott Carnell did something out of character for her.

"I joined Celebrity.com," she said, laughing. "It was a $1 trial period. To be honest with you, I ended up paying 90 bucks before I could cancel my membership. So I got all of these people's publicists' contacts."

They targeted Colbert, who has incorporated NASA in some of his daily shows, and who carried on a gag campaign to have a node on the International Space Station named for him, only to end up with an eponymous treadmill on the ISS. Scott Carnell sent Colbert's publicist an email with a letter attached to outline the project. The reply came within 24 hours.

Back-and-forth correspondence solidified what Lou and Scott Carnell were seeking, and they went to New York on December 15 for a taping of the Colbert's show, "The Colbert Report." In a room in the studio before the taping began, they occasionally glanced at a television when "we saw a NASA 'meatball' across the screen," said Scott Carnell. "We ran over and watched."

Colbert taped two versions of the video, using scripts from Colbert Report writer and co-producer Richard Dahm, adapted from ideas offered by Lou and Scott Carnell.

They then were ushered into the studio to watch a taping of "The Colbert Report."

The issue now is getting the word out on the Colbert video. It's on NASA.gov, and, said Lou, "I'm going to do my part by linking it to my Facebook page. 'Hey, check this video out. Encourage people to like it.' "

The year-long project was really compressed into the last four months of last year.

"In the end, it was fun," said Scott Carnell. "It was stressful, but it was really quite a ride."

A successful one.

Jim Hodges
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center