Want to fly aboard the space shuttle? You can get some face time in orbit, digitally speaking, through the space agency's "Face in Space" Web project. The concept is simple enough: Choose which shuttle mission you want your data to fly on, type your name into the online form, upload a digital image if you wish, size the picture to fit inside a virtual shuttle's window, and click the button. Your name and picture will be added to a computerized file that will be transferred to the shuttle of your choice during the mission. You can choose between STS-133 on Discovery, now due to fly no earlier than September; or STS-134 on Endeavour, set to launch in November or later. The Face in Space website was unveiled to the public just today - but the idea has already generated a lot of buzz, and not all of the G-rated kind. James Hartsfield, a spokesman at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says several thousand people uploaded files during a beta-testing period that was primarily aimed at space agency employees and contractors. Once word got out, other folks contributed as well. "We ended up with people signing up all over the world," Hartsfield told me. But can you upload anything you want? How about porn? The terms and conditions rule out material "describing or depicting sexually explicit conduct ... or other sexually oriented materials." And NASA reserves the right to remove anything that's uploaded. That being said, Hartsfield told the Houston Press that "there's not a safeguard there against what words people can type in, be it profanity or what have you." He acknowledged that "some of that is inherent in dealing with the public." Another question has to do with what ultimately happens to the data file. Even if they did upload your porn-laden file to the shuttle computer (presumably after being checked for viruses), who would look at it? The data file is certainly not going to be reviewed in detail during the mission, and once the shuttle lands, all those bits (including the naughty bits) will go poof. The only proof you'll have that your face (or what have you) has flown in space will be an auto-generated, suitable-for-printing certificate bearing the shuttle commander's signature. Other "fly-your-name" projects involve putting your digitized data on an artifact of some sort, whether it's a microchip on the moon, a mini-DVD on Mars or a CD on its way to Pluto. Today you can sign up to send digital data on the Planetary Society's Lightsail 1 solar sail or NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (a.k.a. the Curiosity rover). In both those cases, the information is put on a storage device (a mini-DVD or microchip, respectively) that will stay on the probe. Now, it's true that the data will probably never be read off those devices. Your message could be destined for oblivion. But it's reassuring for me to think that a trace of my identity could potentially be lying on the Martian surface or heading for the stars. Should the "Face in Space" data be preserved for posterity, perhaps on DVDs that will be on display with their respective shuttles when they go to the museums? Or is it better to wipe the slate clean, out of respect for privacy and perhaps propriety as well? Let me know what you think in a comment below, and just maybe NASA will take your opinion into consideration. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."
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