A long time ago, in a low Earth orbit far, far away…

By Phil Plait | June 6, 2007 2:10 pm


In a recent NASA press release, it was announced that a 400 year old piece of metal — probably a shipping tag of some sort — bearing the words "Yames Towne" will go onboard Atlantis and up to the space station. I don’t have too much of a problem with stunts like this, as it promotes space travel and makes it fun for everyone.

What I do have a problem with is this line from the press release (emphasis mine):

A nearly 400-year-old metal cargo tag bearing the words “Yames Towne” and some commemorative mementoes [sic] are packed in Atlantis’ middeck floor cargo space for the roundtrip flight to the International Space Station. Their hitchhike through the galaxy honors this year’s 400th anniversary of Jamestown, Va., the first permanent English settlement in North America.

I would think the NASA Public Affairs Office (where these releases get written) would know the difference between the galaxy and low-Earth orbit. But then, they’ve hired people in the past who are fuzzy on just how old the Earth is. Maybe they’re also hazy on the difference between a few hundred miles and a few hundred trillion.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Piece of mind, Science

Comments (22)

  1. Tim G

    Maybe the NASA Public Affairs Office never recovered from Towel Day.

  2. ABR

    Yeah, I doubt if much deep thought went into the press release. On the bright side (continuing with the Hitchhiking motif), at least NASA’s space flight program doesn’t consist of throwing ships to the ground in the hopes of missing and thus achieving flight.

  3. Aren’t we all hitchhiking through the galaxy on the back of a middle-aged G-class star?

  4. Michelle Rochon

    Well, any hike is a hike in the galaxy since we’re part of the galaxy… But that’s sure seeing things oversized.

  5. It all depends on your perspective, I suppose. On the scale of the universe, the difference between low earth orbit and galactic hitchhiking is really well within the margin of error…


  6. PK

    For a moment I thought they were going to fling the scrap metal off the ISS back to Earth, like a golf ball…

  7. Remek

    It’s just an itty bitty tiny hitchhike (sorta like running around the 4-Corners monument then saying you visited 4 different states.) :)

  8. Mark Martin

    As long as we’re on journalists and their abundant understanding of the World , let’s talk about hovering satellites:


  9. seaducer

    I would take that more as a deliberate statement, because it sounds cooler than LEO, just PR for the layman…

  10. I won’t condemn them too much for slipping a shout-out to Douglas Adams fans into an official press release. Technically it’s not untrue, though you could just as easily put that metal tag in your pocket and walk across the room and make the same claim. But it’s nowhere near as bad as the NBC “In a galaxy far, far away…” tag from the Gliese 581c story a few weeks ago, which was about as wrong a statement as could be made about that planet. And yet that still wasn’t the wrongest statement made in that story. (That would be the speed of light being stated as 186,000 miles an HOUR!)

  11. I remember back when Voyager 1 swung past Jupiter, the nightly news had a headline that the spacecraft had discovered craters on Jupiter. It was one of Jupiter’s moons, of course. Annoyed me to no end…

  12. Folcrom

    I wouldn’t worry about it.
    Press releases and newspaper/tv reports often contain stuff that is “technically” wrong or simply “plain stupid”.
    Happens all the time. Makes no sense to get the knickers in a twist about it.
    And besides, it gives the loons out their something to crow about,
    ie “you see, your theories are wrong, the earth really is flat”, sort of stuff.
    We cant stop stupidity in press releases and newpaper/tv articles,
    so we may as well just laugh at them.

  13. I hope they also packed a towel.

  14. C’mon folks, it’s mostly harmless.


  15. Mark Martin Says: “As long as we’re on journalists and their abundant understanding of the World , let’s talk about hovering satellites”

    Hey! I watch “24”. I know that in a few minutes you can “move a satellite into position” and have it hover there providing live image feeds so you can track cars on the freeway for an hour, or locate people in a multi-story building by their IR signature.

    I’ve also learned that you can recall an FBM (sub missile) after launch, all the way up to warhead detonation.


    – Jack

  16. Maybe some one has been at the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters a bit too much

    I knew somebody who once tried to creat the nearest real world equivelant

    IIRC the recipie was: Bluebols, Southern Comfort, Benedictine, Vodka, Babysham

    and a chunk of dry ice to get the smokey effect they had on the TV series.

  17. Phil

    Doh, bit of a gaff from NASA there. They should also send up some Vogon Poetry.

  18. spacewriter

    Folcrom said: “I wouldn’t worry about it.
    Press releases … often contain stuff that is “technically” wrong or simply “plain stupid”.”

    Hey, do you have some solid evidence for press releases often containing wrong information? (I won’t argue as much with some TV reports being wrong though)

    I actually work on science press releases quite a lot for several observatories, and believe me, we work very hard to make them scientifically accurate, only to have them misstated or quoted wrongly in some news stories.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, we can’t be all science-happy here and then turn around and be less than precise when flinging around accusations and charges of “imprecision” in others. Ya dig?

  19. Ruth

    If you’re going to find fault it should be with the use of ‘hitchhike’ as applied to a metal cargo tag which is officially being included in the payload. :o)

  20. Yeah, it really gets me when an organization with NASA’s reputation puts out things like this. Their PR people all too often don’t understand what they are trying to promote. And, since it is coming from NASA, everyone else takes it as authoritative, even when it is wrong. Sad. They should at least require their PR people to have had an astronomy course, or something.

  21. But what part of this press release is actually wrong? The “hitchhike” part? Technically, yes, as Ruth noted above. The “through the galaxy” part? Technically, no, as I and others have noted above. I think some folks are being unneccessarily pedantic here. Or are people just announcing that they have never heard of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams? If so, they must be baffled by the comments about towels, Vogon poetry, Pan Galactic Gargleblasters, and throwing yourself at the ground and missing, and I feel sorry that they have missed out on this. Personally, I’m delighted that somebody managed to get this language into a press release.

  22. Irishman

    Folcrom said:
    >I wouldn’t worry about it.
    Press releases and newspaper/tv reports often contain stuff that is “technically” wrong or simply “plain stupid”.
    Happens all the time. Makes no sense to get the knickers in a twist about it.

    Uh, Fulcrom, have you looked at this site at all? It’s called “[b]Bad[/b] Astronomy” for a reason.

    Phil, while both “hitchhike” and “through the Galaxy” are technically wrong, I think this phrase counts as an homage to Douglas Adams, and perhaps is thus exempt from literal accuracy.


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