It takes 11 minutes to send a radio signal from Earth to Mars. In that time you could cook a bag of microwave popcorn five times.

Planet Mars. The Red Planet. The only thing more vast, varied and amazing than our planet neighbor is, well, Jupiter, the next planet over. But that’s no matter. Those who see Mars, through a high-powered telescope or as a faint speck in the night sky, want to reach out to it, touch it, discover its many secrets.

And there are those who work day and night to achieve that lofty goal: astrophysicists, technicians, astronomers, astronauts, theorists, Russians… and janitors?

As odd as it may sound, janitors for the world’s space programs are pushing for greater recognition for their work. Their price for providing their services? A spot on the first-ever manned flight to Mars.

“Astronauts do maybe 10 percent of the space program’s work, but they get 100 percent of the space trips. How fair is that?” says Bernie Yollwin, president of Rockin’ Our Way to Mars (formerly United Disposal and Cleaning). “One janitor representing us in space isn’t a heck of a lot to ask for.”

Under Yollwin’s guidance, janitors at every NASA facility have dropped their brooms and taken to the streets, where they’ve been protesting and building awareness for their plight. Their shining moment, came last week, when Vice President Al Gore, visiting the Green Lake NASA plant, twisted his ankle after tripping on a large pile of nudie magazines. Says Yollwin, “We DEFINITELY would have picked those up.”

Governments are starting to buckle under janitorial pressure. The Canadian Space Agency has announced that if it ever actually does a launch, it will include four janitors, as well as a butcher, an insurance salesperson and Aaron Spelling. Japan has spent 14 billion yen in the last three weeks on an impact study. And in Washington, Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee which oversees all space matters, met privately with his own personal janitor, 81 year old Rebecca McLaughlin, for over an hour to discuss the issue.

There are those who are upset, and it is the astronauts who are the angriest. Astronauts were visibly laughing and taunting participants in the “Let’s At Least Clean Up the Vomit Day” last week in New York. “We don’t do their job,” says astronaut-in-training Darren Will James, “so why do they want to do ours?” Even the normally genial John Glenn jumped into the fray, promising that “it’ll be a cold day in hell before I drink that damn Tang again. Now what’s this about janitors again?”

Astronauts are particularly upset when they learn who the janitors want to send into space. Their choice? Jim “Haystacks” Melvin, a 4 foot 7, 411 pound, 56 year old walking ball of goo whose single accomplishment in 11 years of space program janitoring was letting NASA chief Daniel Goldin know that the price tag was still on his slacks. “I’ve got the ‘right things- er, stuff,'” Melvin said at the janitors’ recent press conference. “If anybody belongs in space, I do.” Unfortunately, the media paid less attention to Melvin’s belief in himself than the fact that he was trying to light a stick of beef jerky, which he mistakenly took to be a cigar. “Maybe we really should send him [Melvin] to Mars…” says NASA analyst T. Rashaun Patterson, “…without any supplies.”

As the debate rages on, Yollwin promises bigger and bigger publicity stunts until complete victory is achieved. Currently he’s trying to encourage janitors in other fields, especially petting zoos and Times Square adult theaters, into sympathy strikes. “All you need is enough pressure,” he says, “and eventually we’ll get our overweight slob into a space suit. Well, maybe two or three sewn together.”

A fascinating debate for sure. This reporter sees merit in both sides of the argument, but personally, I’d like to see a janitor sent to Mars, cause there’s dust all over the bloody surface and somebody ought to clean it all up.

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