It all started about a month before my first spaceflight with one of those simple ideas that ends up altering your life. My wife, Simone, and I were lounging on our couch watching one of our favorite programs, the ‘Colbert Report.’ Stephen was peddling his ‘WristStrong’ bracelets to raise wrist awareness and at that instant I had my eureka moment. For some people, such a moment of crystal clarity leads to a major scientific discovery or the creation of an entirely new art form but for me it was: “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if I bought one of those things and wore it in space?” It arrived in the mail just in time for me to sneak it into our pre-launch quarantine and it went in my spacesuit pocket right next to my emergency survival radio on my way out the door to the launch pad.
Soon after orbital insertion, I put the bracelet on my wrist and wore it while that same wrist operated the Space Station Robotic Arm hand controller. (It helped, I swear.) But no one noticed. Weeks went by with many photos of my adorned wrist being downlinked from outer space, but to no avail.
Until one day, my friend Stu, a writer, finally noticed it. He sent the photo above to his book agent, Simon, who shared it with his girlfriend, Annie, who once worked on a Willie Nelson TV special with a producer, Tanya, who ended up as the Supervising Producer for the ‘Colbert Report’. Passing through these 5 degrees of separation, this photo of me and my wrist ended up on Stephen’s desk. He loved it, and a message came back through all 5 people – Stephen would like to interview me for the Report.
The first thing I did was forward the request to our NASA Office of Public Affairs in Houston for approval. Approval was not forthcoming. In fact, the first thing Houston told me was that never in a million years would they ever let me appear on that highly inappropriate, irreverent, and vulgar show. It might cause the agency embarrassment. To which I replied, “Oh really? We just had an astronaut drive from Houston to Florida in a diaper to attempt to murder a romantic rival. How much worse could things get?” They shot back, “But he might portray NASA in a negative light.” My retort was “Isn’t the surest way to make that happen for me to tell them to take their interview request and shove it?”
That argument won the day and on May 8, 2008 I was up in the International Space Station, with nothing but an old Sony PD-100 video camera to stare into and I got the call from Houston that we were going to start the Colbert interview. Someone from the Earth started asking me funny questions, but coming over the comm system it didn’t sound like Stephen. I thought it was someone on his staff warming me up. Just go with it, I thought, which was a good thing since about a minute into the interview I heard some phrase or intonation that was unmistakably Stephen and I realized that the interview had begun a while ago.
Stephen was having a great time – it turns out he is a huge space fan – and it also turns out that I can be pretty funny with a 3-second communications time delay. Stephen would say something hysterically funny and he would be already into his next joke when I would suddenly burst out laughing. Stephen picked up on this immediately and began to play with it, both of us having tremendous fun. You can watch the original interview here:
Far from portraying NASA in a negative light, the interview was a huge public relations win for NASA and as you can tell, it was a hell of a lot of fun for me.
Then things went horribly horribly wrong. One dark day later that month our one and only toilet on the Space Station broke, and despite our best Herculean efforts, we could not get it working again. It was a time of desperation, consternation, and constipation, but on May 29, Stephen lightened the mood considerably with a hysterical ‘Shout Out’ which you can see here:
When this ‘Shout Out’ was uplinked to us, I laughed so hard that my eyes filled up with tears – which is a problem since those tears don’t run down your face in space. They pool up around your eyes making it hard to see, so I had to get a towel and wipe the tears away to cure what might have been the first case of laughter-induced clinical blindness.
Things got better once the Space Shuttle Discovery showed up with spare parts for our broken toilet and soon thereafter I found myself back on Earth with an invitation to come to New York to appear on the show in person. On Wednesday July 23rd I got on a commercial flight from Houston to New York super excited for Thursday’s show.
Then things went horribly horribly wrong. There was a severe line of thunderstorms moving across New York City as we approached and our flight had to divert to Pittsburgh, PA. After waiting as long as possible we taxied out for takeoff only to find out that the weather still was not cooperating and we were going to be stranded in Pittsburgh. Standing in baggage claim, I called Hertz on my cell phone and scored the last rental car in Pittsburgh.
Overhearing my conversation and knowing that the next flight to New York wasn’t for another 12 hours or so, three other stranded refugees approached me and asked if they could come along. Feeling like the pilot of the last helicopter out of the US Embassy in Saigon, I agreed. However, I levied two requirements: first, I was going to do all of the driving, and second, I was going to drive very fast. They agreed and an astronaut, a music producer, a physician, and a psychiatrist boarded a rental car and set off at midnight for New York. Before long we were on the PA Turnpike approaching orbital velocities, or at least traveling as fast as a white Ford Taurus could go.
As we shot through the dark Pennsylvania night at breakneck speed, finally one of the guys in the backseat asked me, what’s the rush? “Umm,” I said, “Have you guys seen the ‘Colbert Report’?” All three nodded yes (turns out they were all fans of the show) “Well, I’m tomorrow’s guest.” Suddenly, it was an interstate party. Reaching our destination with time to spare I dropped off the music producer at Newark Airport and the physician and psychiatrist in Manhattan then I checked into my hotel, took a quick shower, and headed to the Colbert studios for the taping. To this day, all four of us refugees share a special bond and keep in touch via e-mail and update each other on how our lives are going, congratulate each other on weddings, graduations, and the birth of children.
We made it, but then the anxiety kicked in; it was much scarier to do the interview in the studio. How was I going to be funny without any communications time delay? I asked if I could sit in a different room with an arbitrary electronic delay, but no luck. Stephen visited me in the green room and was very reassuring. He was very interesting and quite serious in private. I asked him about the ‘Daily Show’ and the noticeable change once Jon Stewart took the helm. He told me that Jon encouraged everyone to incorporate their passions into their writing and their segments without the constraint of being rigorously politically balanced. That, he said, made all the difference and Stephen had effusive praise for Jon and his leadership of that show.
Having that private time with Stephen was very special, but we had a job to do and before I knew it I was being seated on the set at the round interview table. When the staff member who escorted me to the table dropped me off he said, see you in about 5 minutes and I began to panic. “Don’t you mean about 30 minutes?” I asked, assuming we would tape a long interview to be forgivingly edited later. “Nope, we like to make this as close to a live show as possible to keep it fresh and spontaneous,” he replied. Oh crap was what I thought, but before I could get too worried, Stephen started the intro and came running out from his desk with his arms raised victoriously above his head accepting the wave of applause from his fans with extremely faux modesty and bowing deeply, as you have all witnessed on his show before. It was all I could do to resist the temptation to get out of my seat to greet him. You really can’t help but feel awkward in this moment even if you completely expect it. Then the interview began and we both had a grand time. Thanks to Hertz, everything was fine and you can see the result here:
Over the years we became very good friends with Tanya and still saw our Colbert friends on occasion. But despite that, I was very pleasantly surprised to get a call from Tanya in early December inviting me to be a guest on the final episode of the ‘Colbert Report’. I gratefully accepted immediately and booked a flight to New York. When I landed at JFK Airport, I e-mailed my fellow refugees to assure them that I was not stranded in Pittsburgh.
Arriving at the Colbert studios the mood was excitingly exuberant, like a high school reunion where everyone ended up successful while retaining their youthful good looks. None of us knew exactly who to expect at the finale since the Colbert team asked us all to keep our participation secret, so walking around the studio it was fascinating to see all the assembled guests. Running into Patrick Stewart, Arianna Huffington, and Cookie Monster was like getting little surprise Christmas presents a week early. I was escorted to the ‘chorus’ greenroom – the lowest tier group – but what the heck, most of the New York Times columnists were there with me along with Charlie Rose and Elliot Spitzer. I ended up talking about Russia’s financial crisis with Thomas Friedman, mostly so that I could tell you that I talked about Russia’s financial crisis with Thomas Friedman. Plus there was an open bar! Perhaps my favorite moment was talking to Ed Viesturs, one of the world’s top mountaineers about Everest and how many of the fatal consequences of mountaineering are self-inflicted due to poor decisions and how many similarities there are between mountaineering and flying when it comes to decision-making.
Soon we were ushered into the set for our dress rehearsal. We practiced entering, hitting our marks and singing ‘We’ll meet again’. Fortunately for the viewing audience, there wasn’t a microphone near me – I think they only put a mic on Stephen, Randy Newman, Barry Manilow, and Cindy Lauper, which is good since I really only sing when I want people to get the hell out of my car. We ran through it twice and then headed back to the bar. Along the way I was introduced to James Franco fresh off his North Korean controversy blow-up. When I asked him if he had security there, he pointed to a huge dude lurking in the hallway with an ear piece in place and rose above me menacingly saying, “And he’s looking right at…YOU!!” Then I came across a much mellower Willie Nelson and promptly thanked him for making my presence at this august event possible.
A few beers with Ed Viesturs later, it was time and like a bunch of giddy schoolchildren we went back to the studio, this time with cameras rolling, and we all sang. You can see it here:
When it was over, Stephen got up on his desk and gave a wonderfully touching valedictory.
Then it was off to the wrap party. We all boarded busses and went down to midtown where Comedy Central had reserved a performing arts space and installed a bar, a light dinner buffet, a photo booth, and a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream station, manned by Ben and Jerry, of course.
It was pretty much the best cocktail party – ever. There were some bona fide celebrities there, but there were also so many less recognizable yet truly amazing people lurking about. Sure, there were people like Bryan Cranston:
But there were also people like Jimmy Wales, the guy who invented Wikipedia, to whom I offered heartfelt thanks for making it possible for me to land my current job at SpaceX. (True story – for another day.) The difficult part was getting around the awkward question that everyone wanted to ask – “Who are you?” So we all resorted to carefully crafted euphemistic queries like, “So were you a guest on the show? Did you discuss a book during your segment?” And “Are you an animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
In my bright blue jacket, I wasn’t much of an enigma, nor was Tim Meadows. We huddled up and pointed out people who we met. “That guy standing at the bar with a beer in his hand – that’s one of the world’s top mountaineers.” I said. “That guy painted the Obama Hope graphic,” said Tim confiding that his biggest fear was missing a chance to talk to someone really cool because he just couldn’t tell who they were.
There were many fun celebrity encounters. Neil deGrasse Tyson taught me a new trick on my iPhone. We tried, but failed miserably to play a practical joke on Doris Kearns Goodwin due to a premature reveal but she allowed us to proceed anyway with incredible grace and good nature. But perhaps the most flattering occurrence was when Paulina Porizkova gamely agreed to take a selfie with me but asked for a moment first to touch up her lipstick. For a photo. On my iPhone. For me. That….was…so…cool! (You can see the result on my Twitter feed @astro_g_dogg.)
The night ended too soon despite the fact that we stayed later than most of the guests but were rewarded by the chance to hear Stephen give one final thank you speech to his staff. He thanked them all for letting all their stars come out each and every night –a cloudless sky all the time.
A big question on all our minds was, what would the new show be like? No one really knows, because Stephen and his staff a just starting to work that out now – but we do know that it will not include the Character Stephen has played for the past nine years. Once the pretense of the Character is dropped would Stephen be as fascinating to watch? Stephen assured us that he would bring his passion to the new gig, “Why else do it?” And Jon Stewart thought Stephen would become untethered – freed of the constraint of the Character. “What made the show so great was not the Character,” Jon said, “but Stephen’s wonderful intellect and wit.”
Finally, I had a chance to offer my thanks to Stephen for the amazing gift he has bestowed upon me. For a time, I feared being forever remembered as the astronaut who was stranded in space with a broken toilet. But instead, I am remembered as the astronaut who was on the ‘Colbert Report’. And that is way better!