Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!

By Phil Plait | May 1, 2007 11:03 am

I was on the very popular NPR radio show "Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!" on Friday. Kinda.

Here’s how it went. At TAM5, I met Peter Sagal, the host of "Wait Wait". He gave a great talk, and although we only talked briefly we hit it off. He was very funny and personable, which I guess you have to be if you’re a successful NPR radio game show host.

So weeks pass, and I’m on my way home. My cell phone rings. It’s Peter! They have a segment on the show where they tell a contestant three stories about a topic, but only one is true. If the contestant guesses the right one, they win a prize — the announcer will record their phone message for them, which I think is really funny.

So Peter tells me they have NASA as their topic for tonight’s live taping, but they found out that their "true" story is actually an urban legend! Uh oh. Do I know any far-out NASA stories that sound like they may to be true, but in fact are?

I actually came up empty, but Peter asked if I had ever heard of the John Young corned-beef sandwich story? I said yeah, I had, but I didn’t know the details. So when I got home, I called my old buddy James Oberg, and he gave the me the whole scoop on the story. I called Peter back, and they recorded me talking about it.

I won’t go into the story here– because you can just listen to that segment of the radio show online your own self. I actually only have two lines they used for the show, so I’m not exactly an NPR star, but it was still fun, and I’m getting some email about it too.

Maybe I’ll send Peter an email sometime and try to be on the show. They have another segment where they get an "expert" in some field get asked questions about a totally different field, and it’s pretty funny hearing smart people stumble around. The problem, of course, is that I am such a polymath and genius in every subject in the Universe that they’ll have a hard time stumping me. But they can consider that their own challenge.


Comments (29)

  1. Donnie B.

    I think you’d make a great “Not My Job” guest, Phil.

    Sometimes the best ones are the people you’d never expect.

  2. feeder_goldfish

    Hey, I heard you on Wait Wait! I even guessed the correct answer. Man, I love that show. I love your website, too. Recently, Linda Ronstadt was on the show and she was high-larious! Who’d have thought?! Oh, yeah… and I work on your campus!

  3. As soon as I heard your voice I exclaimed “Hey! That’s Phil Plait, my favorite astronomer!”

    Then my wife pointed out to me how much of a geek I am by the facts that A) I know the names of some modern astronomers, B) I have a favorite, and C) I could identify that person by their voice.

    I now feel that I should add D) I told him how excited I was by leaving a comment on his blog.

    At any rate, it was a pleasant surprise, good stuff.

  4. One of my favorite NASA stories has to do with the very early days of the space program when the Soviets were beating us with first after first while our stuff kept blowing up on the pad in spectacular explosions.

    After Kennedy tasked us with landing a man on the moon, a reporter asked Werner von Braun “What do you think we’ll find when we get to the moon?”

    Werner replied “At the rate we are going, empty vodka bottles.”

  5. Patrick

    I heard you on there Saturday on CPR. I recognized your voice and thought ‘no way.’ Pretty cool. I got the right answer too.

    Some helpful (sort of related) info for when you move to Boulder. You’ll find Colorado Public radio’s news on 1490am in Boulder (1340am if you’re running errands in Denver for whatever reason). Their classical music is on 90.1 fm. They air wait wait on Saturday afternoons.

  6. JRY

    Heard you on a rebroadcast Sunday morning. It was definitely a cool moment.

  7. Harvi

    ooh, I’ll have to go listen on my iPod. :)

    Love, love, love that show!

  8. hale_bopp

    They had Ken Jennings (70 some time Jeopardy champ) on Not My Job twice. The first time they asked him questions a Mormon shouldn’t know the answers to. Example: You wake up in the morning and find yourself in bed with someone whose name you don’t remember. What should you do? They funny part is he went 3 for 3 and got them all!

    The second time they had him on, they went the opposite direction and asked him questions a geek should know the answers to such as the name of a group founded to oppose the game Dungeons and Dragons. He only got one right that time.

    So do you really think you are more of an all around genius than Ken Jennings? Guess you will have to win a couple of hundred times on Jeopardy if you book doesn’t sell well enough :)


  9. Tim G

    So…what was the urban legend?

  10. Dan

    I listen to the podcast every Monday, and as soon as you came on I was all “that’s our BA!” and teared up.

    None of my coworkers knew what the hell I was talking about but that’s OK, who cares about them.

  11. AstroSmurf

    Personally I think Alan Shepard’s “golden” Mercury launch has it beat, but that might not have been suitable for radio…

  12. Supernova

    Oh no! I missed that part of this week’s show — will have to go back and listen online. How cool!

  13. Jeff Fite

    Okay, the BA got to reveal the correct answer, and that’s cool and all, but Paula Poundstone’s fake NASA story nearly killed me! Literally–I was up a ladder at the time.

    It seems–so the story went–that there were nekkid buttock prints on the inside of the Apollo XI lunar module. Buzz Aldrin was suspected of displaying his backside to Neil Armstrong during Armstrong’s historic first steps, thereby becoming the first man to ‘moon’ the first man on the moon!

    I love that show.

  14. How sad is it that I, too, recognized your voice on the show?

    By the way, one thing Buzz Aldrin *did* do (and this was left out of the official transcript) relates to Neil’s historic moment. Buzz was the second man to walk on the moon. When he jumped off the bottom rung of the LM’s ladder, he proclaimed, “That might have been a small step for Neil, but it’s a big one for a little guy like me.” He’d bet someone $500 he’d say that (in 1969, when $500 was real money).

  15. Jeffrey Cornish

    Actually it was Pete Conrad who made the bet with a reporter at a party months prior to the launch to prove NASA wasn’t scripting the words the astronauts were saying as they stepped off the LM.

    Buzz Aldrin’s first words after stepping on the Moon were “Magnificent Desolation”

    No, I don’t compulsively reference the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal at http://history.nasa.gov/alsj/frame.html



  16. yd

    Chalk me up as another voice recognizer. I listened to the WWDTM podcast on my run yesterday, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear your voice as the expert describing the story. I should have assumed you’d be the one to talk about it when I heard the topic.

    Hopefully they pull you in for a Not My Job segment in the future.

  17. dan

    frickin’ fantastic.

    i love that show, so i know exactly what you’re talking about. it’s the part where they go “let’s listen to someone who knows a little something about the TRUE story…” or something, then they play a news clip or interview or what have you.

    excellent. this is one of my “NPR podcasts” stored in the queue for my walks to and from work. can’t wait to hear ya.

  18. Thanks for the correction, Jeffrey. Mine was a rusty recollection from a moment in “For All Mankind.” Here’s the correct quote (via Wikipedia): “Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”

  19. The_Bad_Astronomer

    Yeah! (suckers)

  20. DennyMo

    I’m downloading the mp3 of the show now, look forward to hearing it. In the meantime, I think another candidate would have been the origins of the term “percussive maintenance”. I think it’s from the SkyLab days, when one of the astronauts was giving precise instructions on where and how hard to hit one of the radios with a hammer to get it functioning properly. Or at least that’s what I remember from the National Geographics article when I was a kid.

  21. Gary Ansorge

    Gee, a polymath, in this Blog? Who’d a thunk it?

    My brother, the retired rocket scientist(from Rockwell), insists that humans HAVE had sex in space, but of course, NASA has to disavow those stories. Americans MUST be protected from the knowledge that people in space may be HORNY.
    The English should have hung all the Puritans, then maybe we wouldn’t have had all these sexual hangups,,,

    GAry 7

  22. I was actually reading your blog during “Wait Wait” last week, I knew the sandwich story was the true one, and was amused to hear you on the radio immediately thereafter.

    I have to agree that Paula’s story was funnier.

  23. As a fan of “Wait Wait” as well as a part-time announcer for a public radio station that runs the show, I was absolutely delighted to hear Phil talk about the corned beef sandwich in space! You GO, Phil!

  24. Kevin Stebleton

    I was casually listening to Wait Wait and was SURPRISED when I too heard the BA answer the question.

    Great show – although, the BA would make a great guest on a number of NPR shows – Fresh Air, Science Friday, or any news program.

    Would the BA be interested in doing a media tour to promote his coming writings? One of those deals where you make an appearance on a number of news channels, TV and Radio, and plug your wares. You’d do well and help sell a bunch of BA BS.

  25. jer

    I heard it a few days ago and recognized you immediately… interestingly enough, the crowd went nuts, and it really seemed like some of them recognized you too. Maybe they were just rooting for that story to be truem but I really think you were getting some love.

  26. csrster

    I’m such a geek I immediately twigged that the mooning-the-moon story just wouldn’t wash technically – how could Aldrin get out of his spacesuit in a depressurixed LM when he was expected to join Armstrong on the surface a few minutes later ??? Otoh, the sandwich thing just sounded like a typical astronauty thing to do.

    Still it was a pleasant surprise to hear your podcasted voice emerging unexpectedly from my mp3 player on the bus to work this morning.

  27. Robert Carnegie

    Should I listen first? I understand there is one manual camera in orbit, dropped accidentally by Sunita William – if it hasn’t crash-landed since. Anything you drop will come back on the same orbit eventually, right? Leaving out atmospheric drag.

    From Googling this information, I understand Greg Olsen lost his digital camera -inside- the ISS. It floated off somewhere. I don’t know if they found and returned it later.


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