Last Tuesday’s landing of the Space Shuttle Discovery in the deserts of California capped a tense two weeks in which the safety of the vehicle and the seven astronauts it contained was never 100 percent assured. The loss of foam insulation during liftoff was eerily reminiscent of the last shuttle mission in 2003, when the Challenger burned up during re-entry, killing everyone on board — an accident that was blamed on insulation.

How did the news of this danger, reported during the mission itself, affect the public? In June, a CNN/USA Today poll found that 74 percent of Americans thought that the shuttle project “should be continued.” However, in a CBS News survey carried out after the Discovery’s launch July 26, only 59 percent of the respondents said that the project was “worth continuing.” Even with the margin of error factored in, it’s a significant drop. CBS characterized the results as “a new low” in public support for the shuttle.

This support is critical since a lot of tax money is being spent on the space shuttle and the International Space Station it serves. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been criticized since the Challenger accident for not addressing the foam problem seriously enough. Some critics have said that it’s unsolvable, and that if NASA publicly acknowledged the difficulty of the problem the whole program would have been shut down. As it is, planned launches have been postponed indefinitely, but the agency still insists that the program will continue, even if all the shuttles are to be retired by 2009.

One of the reasons NASA presses on with the shuttle program is self-preservation (lots of jobs are at stake), but another is that Europe and Japan have already invested a great deal in the program. The Japan Aeronautics Exploration Agency (JAXA) has spent trillions of yen on Kibo, a laboratory module that will be installed on the International Space Station and which can only be delivered by the shuttle.

The Japanese public’s support for space exploration is less critical for reasons both obvious (the government rarely takes public opinion into consideration) and practical (there isn’t much space exploration taking place), but the canonization of Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi as a “superhero” — what Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called him — could conceivably make space travel more popular than SMAP.

Which is probably why the aging boy band found a way of tying into Noguchi’s celebrity. In early July, two members of SMAP, Shingo Katori and Goro Inagaki, went to Houston as “journalists” to take a tour of the Johnson Space Center and sit in on a press conference attended by all seven astronauts. Their escapades were later shown on Katori’s Saturday night news variety show, “SmaStation.” We saw the idol nervously sitting in his seat, mentally preparing his question in the English he so painstakingly studies for the program. When he was tapped by the moderator, he sputtered out his query: “What music do you want to listen to up in space?”

The astronauts seemed to welcome such a question since it was a break from the usual fare. One of them said something about Bach, Beethoven and The Beatles. Noguchi didn’t answer, but he obviously took note. During the space flight he played SMAP’s big hit “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana” on a keyboard, which means it was broadcast all over the world. Mission accomplished.

Nissin Foods also got a nice PR boost when Noguchi ate their Space Ram noodles during the flight. The company, which invented instant ramen, somehow overcame the difficulties of eating Cup Noodle in zero gravity by developing a thicker soup and ball-shaped noodles. Noguchi even helped them test it in the early stages. Space Ram has no commercial potential, and even for space travel it isn’t likely to become a staple unless you’re talking all-Japanese crews. But just in case, it’s made to be eaten with a fork.

You can’t buy this kind of publicity, which was possible because the entire flight was broadcast on video. JAXA astronaut Mamoru Mori, who was the first Japanese to fly on a shuttle, pointed out on Fuji TV’s morning news show that only during the last 24 hours, when Discovery retracted its antenna for re-entry, did the video feed to Earth stop.

Noguchi didn’t need the video to be a star, which is what he called himself while describing how it felt to float in space to the prime minister. More than a superhero, Noguchi represents that most irresistible of role models: the boy who grew up to fulfill his dreams. He longed to be an astronaut when he was a child, something that is mentioned in almost every report which features him.

If there’s a sad note to Noguchi’s accomplishments it’s that they may be behind him now. During the postlanding press conference he said that he wanted to go right back to the space station, which, considering what he’d gone through to get there, is understandable: nine years of preparation for 14 days’ work. And that’s not counting the hours he put in to getting into and graduating from Tokyo University.

It’s sad, because being an astronaut is not, strictly speaking, a full-time job — meaning very few spend more than a tiny fraction of their career in space. However, if it’s any consolation, Noguchi can look forward to the fact that he will always be referred to as an astronaut. And he will continue to be a star, though not in the extraterrestrial sense he evoked when talking to the prime minister. He may have even already accepted this as his fate. “We’ve trained for four years,” he said to colleague Steve Robinson, as Robinson did repair work on Discovery in space. “You’re going to spend the next four years signing autographs.”