Today, the last space flight of NASA's 30-year shuttle program takes off. The shuttle, Atlantis, is now expected to launch at 4:26 p.m eastern time, and with the program coming to the end, a “generational battle” is brewing over the future of the space program. On June 30, astronaut veterans like Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Chris Kraft, Jim Lovell, and Robert Crippen sent a letter to President Obama asking him to extend the program. Throughout the history of the manned spaceflight program we've always had another program to transition into … It got canceled and we don't have anything, Atlantis launch manager Mike Leinbach said. With no more flights on the horizon, how can scientists maintain support for space exploration going forward?

With the help of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, scholars concluded this May. In a report presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association called “The Impact of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Public Attentiveness to Science and the Environment,” Lauren Feldmen of American University, Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University, and Edward Maibach of George Mason University concluded that these television programs provide a “gateway” to interest in science, especially among uneducated and less politically-engaged audiences. A national survey of 2,164 U.S. residents found that exposure to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report was positively correlated with attentiveness to science news. Furthermore, among the most-frequent viewers of satirical news programs, disparities in levels of education made little difference—frequent viewers who had completed higher education were just as likely to be engaged with science news as frequent viewers who had not. The authors concluded, “In its ability to draw attention to science and environmental topics, satirical television news appears to be on par with or even exceed its traditional television news counterparts.”

The authors also (kind of) credited Stephen Colbert with saving the space program once before. In a 2010 interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about plans to scale back the space program, Colbert expressed dismay that children would no longer be as inspired to become astronauts or scientists. “We're going to lose that as Americans,” he said. 

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A week later, President Obama reversed course in his address about the importance of space exploration at the Kennedy Space Center. Colbert took the credit. “I saved the space program!” he announced. 

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“While perhaps Stephen Colbert cannot fairly lay claim to saving NASA’s space program, there appear to be real public relations benefits conferred by his program,” the authors suggested. Perhaps Armstrong, Glenn, Kraft, Lovell, and Crippen should write to Colbert instead.