Ep. 425: Naming Spacecraft

Have you ever noticed spacecraft missions have some pretty cool names? How does anyone decide what to call these things?

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Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast, Episode 425: Naming Spacecraft. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos. We’ll help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today, and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela, how are you doing?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser: Good, but a little sad. At the time that we are recording this show, we do not know what happened to the lander from – the little lander that could, from Europe.
Pamela: It’s true. We’re both glued to our various feeds, waiting to see if little Schiaparelli decides to call home. Yeah –
Fraser: It started out to be such a good day. There was – there’s three separate spacecrafts, carrying human beings in space right now, plus a new mission arriving at Mars. It’s a very good day for space.
Pamela: Well, for human space. ExoMars did successfully implant itself in orbit, so we have one new orbiter going round and round Mars. But it’s the surface where you really want to be to do cool stuff, like digging and seeing what’s in the dirt, and –
Fraser: Well, let’s get on with the show, because it’s kind of relevant. So, how – have you ever noticed that spacecraft missions have some pretty cool names? How does anyone decide what to call these things, anyway? Alright Pamela, so this is yours, and I guess it’s sort of appropriate, because it – once again, you’re going to be at the DPS meeting.
Pamela: Was at, but yes.
Fraser: Was at, yes! So you – so all the new missions, all the new information coming back from New Horizons and Cassini and things like that. So, you put this one on the docket, so let’s talk a bit about how spacecraft get their names.
Pamela: Well, what’s always fascinating is there’s no one way that it happens. And, as you and I have experienced, we went through and we did a whole series for a while of missions where you have a famous human. Famous human does amazing science to become famous human, and then NASA commemorates famous human by naming a spacecraft after said human, usually only after the human has died and the space craft has lived. So, for instance, there was the gamma ray telescope called GLAST up until after it had successfully returned first light, at which point GLAST got renamed Fermi. Hubble was not called Hubble until after it was in space, at which point it became Hubble. Chandra was the same.
Fraser: That’s weird. Go back for one second. So, the Hubble Space Telescope for example, right? The telescope that we’re most familiar with; it wasn’t called Hubble until it was actually operating, getting first light.
Pamela: And so, there was this long tradition that it was a curse to name a telescope after a human until afterwards. And the mission that really broke that was the James Webb Space Telescope. And there was a whole lot of people that were, like, oh, they shouldn’t have done that, because no matter how much of a scientist you are, there’s this small, little, innate part of your lizard brain that insists upon being superstitious.
Fraser: You’re jinxing it!
Pamela: And the lizard brain part was going no, no, no, no, no, don’t do that! No, no, no, no, bad, bad. And the thing was, they kind of opened the floodgate once they named JWST after James Webb. And now we have little Schiaparelli, again, human, and the spacecraft died.
Fraser: Maybe.
Pamela: Maybe. We don’t know yet.
Fraser: We don’t know yet. We’ll talk in a week.
Pamela: So, there was this fabulous tradition of you try and come up with a good acronym. Failing finding a good acronym, you just come up with a good noun. And you launch and you go. Or you wait until you’ve launched and you work and then you name yourself after a famous human.
Pamela: So, is that really the key? Like, the best thing to get – the best name is either, like, an acronym that sounds super-cool and is kind of relevant to the mission, or you name the mission after a famous human being that was somewhat related to the mission. And if you could, like, really knock it out of the park, you would have an acronym –
Pamela: Do both.
Fraser: Yeah, you’d have an acronym that is relevant to the name of a person, but is also – you know, breaks apart into something that makes sense for the mission as well. I don’t think it’s been pulled off yet.
Pamela: So, there’s famous things like WMAP, which was originally just MAP. And then they wanted to add Wilkinson to it because of all his amazing science, so it became the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP. But I have to admit, my sweet spot is for all of these missions that force acronyms to get awesome names. I think my favorite has to be OSIRIS-REx, which is the coolest name ever. And the most forced acronym, because it’s the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer.
Fraser: As opposed to the Rock Grabber Retriever, or the Bring a Rock Back to Earth, the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, ARM. That’s what I call it. I call it the ARM: the Asteroid Retrieval Mission. But instead, it got OSIRIS-REx. So, what’s that again?
Pamela: It’s the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer.
Fraser: But what is OSIRIS mean in – like, how is that relevant to the mission?
Pamela: It’s cool –?
Fraser: And then REx?
Pamela: I mean, so –
Fraser: So, like, it just turns into, like, the king of all –
Pamela: Right. So, Rex is king.
Fraser: And Osiris is –
Pamela: And Osiris was an Egyptian god.
Fraser: Yes. God-king?
Pamela: So you have the god of the Underworld and the Afterlife, who has been turned into a king.
Fraser: Right.
Pamela: It’s just cool. It’s forced, but it’s –
Fraser: It’s super-forced. Come on.
Pamela: Well, I mean, you have MeSSEnGeR right there with it. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to go through and rewrite where someone has written Messenger for the Mercury Exploration Mission with just a capital M, and then all the rest of the letters lower case. But no! It should actually be capital M, lowercase e, capital S, capital S, capital E, lowercase n, capital G, lowercase e, capital R. No one does that. So, they do just make it all capital, and it stands for the Mercury Surface Space Environment Geochemistry and Ranging, so –
Fraser: Right. And so it was before – it was, like, MSSENGR, and then they decided to make it sound like a word, and so they added the extra parts. There’s one that I think that has been badly misnamed that’s up right now, and that’s the DSCOVR satellite.
Pamela: Which?
Fraser: The DSCOVR.
Pamela: Oh, yeah.
Fraser: Right?
Pamela: It’s one of the earth-imaging ones.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah.
Pamela: It looks – everyone just calls it Discover.
Fraser: I know, but it’s – they’ve kept the spelling. So, it’s the Deep Space Climate Observatory, right? But the acronym is D-S-C-O-V-R. So, observ – Yeah. No, no. I’m going to say that that – the naming on that one just, like – should have just gone the whole distance and just said call it Discover, D-I-S-C-O-V-E-R. That’s okay, with little “I”s and little “E”s, and we’ll forget about that, we’ll just do it all in uppercase, or capital D, lowercase “over.” But this is just – like, I literally have to look it up every single time I’m writing about it. And is it D-I-S-cover? Is it – anyway –
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: No.
Pamela: What’s a vowel here and there?
Fraser: These are important.
Pamela: So, one final mash-up mission is BeppoSAX. Do you know that one?
Fraser: Well, that’s the Mercury Mission.
Pamela: So that’s – among other things, but do you know its name?
Fraser: No.
Pamela: So, Beppo is –
Fraser: Well, there’s Beppo Colombo.
Pamela: Right. So, Beppo was the physicist Giapeppo Beppo – I’m going to destroy this, I apologize to people who speak Italian – Osh-ia-lali, lani. I’m not sure how to say this. It’s an Italian name that I’m sure sounds really amazing when pronounced by someone who speaks Italian. And then the SAX part stands for Satellite per Astronomia a raggi X, which means satellite for X-ray astronomy.
So, you combine the satellite for X-ray astronomy, but written in Italian, so that you get SAX, with Beppo, who is the nickname for this fabulous scientist, and you get BeppoSAX, which is fun to say, and impossible to remember the name of the origin – it’s impossible to remember the origins of the name.
Fraser: So – But, so there’s the Beppo Colombo, which is the one that’s named after Giuseppe Bepi Colombo, 1920-1984, and it’s a mission to Mercury.
Pamela: And so, BeppoSAX is the X-ray. Similar.
Fraser: And so, I mean – I guess – I don’t know. That sounds good. Use the person’s nickname for their first name, and then use their actual name for the last name, and then just mash the two together. I think it’s alright.
Pamela: So, there’s also all of the missions that have been named by kids, by the public – so, the gravitational mission that recently went and orbited the moon had two separate satellites. A leading one and a trailing one. And those got named, by kids, Ebb and Flow.
Fraser: That’s cool. So, letting kids – I think letting kids name your rovers is a good idea. You know, name your missions. But don’t let your missions be named by Steven Colbert.
Pamela: No, that’s true. That is true.
Fraser: Yeah. Did you hear what they – so, did you hear about that? They – NASA put out the word for a mission, and Colbert used the Nation to try and get the spacecraft named after him, and they turned him down, but they did come up with a – they did name a treadmill after him.
Pamela: It’s true. But who doesn’t want a treadmill named after them?
Fraser: Yeah. So, it is – let me see if I can get it here – The Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. And that is literally what the thing is named on the International Space Station. This is what the astronauts use to recover themselves, to sort of try and maintain their muscle mass while they’re on the International Space Station, which I think is just great. I saw a mockup of the COLBERT when I was at the Kennedy Space Center. In the room where they have the Atlantis, they have a model of the COLBERT, so you get to go and check it out.
Pamela: That is cool.
Fraser: But it gets weirder than this, right? Because it’s not just the actual full missions themselves. The missions themselves have instruments, and the instruments onboard all have their own names as well.
Pamela: So, we have – with New Horizons, we have the ALICE Instrument, which is another acronym. But they worked it out so they had two instruments that were named after characters from The Honeymooners. So, it’s all of these crazy, different things, and it largely comes from weird scientists who are forced to be all logical and mathematical, and we get to use our creativity so rarely, and we use it all up naming things, and then we do it badly.
Fraser: This is like one – oh, well, no – but, I mean, this is, like, one – you know, one little way to express your creativity. So, I think it’s alright.
Pamela: And what’s always interesting, though, is as we were just talking about, they do let the public name things, and often you end up with names where the scientists are, like, lame, that’s lame.
And one of my favorite examples of this is the Mars landing laboratory that we all now call Curiosity. Everyone was originally, like, “No, we don’t like the name Curiosity.” So, you saw the scientists always referring to it by its full name, and then you had everyone else just like, “And we shall call it Curiosity.” And it’s the Curiosity Rover. So there’s this great MSL versus Curiosity. You could always tell. Is this a scientist or a hard-core “I shall use the proper terminology!” person versus “Hey, the kids named it Curiosity. That’s kind of cool. Let’s name it that.”
Fraser: Well, you actually see both, right? So, you see MSL Curiosity. Some people will use that, but – so, is Curiosity – was that named early, or was that –?
Pamela: That one was – that one they released the name early, but it wasn’t named after a human. So, it had been named the Mars Science Laboratory since they initially proposed the mission, because you have to name it something on the paperwork. And then, as it was nearing time for launch, they did the public drive on what shall we name it, and Curiosity came out of that.
Fraser: Right. So, I guess – have you ever been involved in helping name something or be, you know, part of a group that’s had to name something?
Pamela: Well, I named CosmoQuest.
Fraser: Well, obviously, yeah, yeah.
Pamela: And that, I have to admit, the naming of CosmoQuest comes out of what URL is still available.
Fraser: That is how I named Universe Today, so even 17 years ago; there weren’t a lot of names available. And so I just took spacey words and date words and just mixed and matched them until I got a domain name that was available, and that was the name of my company.
Pamela: Yeah, so, I – yes, this is how we name things today, is based on what URLs are still available to purchase. But when it comes to fancier things, I luckily have so far avoided having to do that, because I recognize there are certain skills I, as a scientist, should not pretend I possess. And the skill to name things is one of those things I shouldn’t be allowed to do.
Fraser: Now, the way naming things works in the case of science missions and space missions – as you said, in some cases, it’s named after a famous scientist, named after some person who was part of NASA, or is sort of given to the Internet to, you know, name it after various dirty jokes. But, you know, in regular academia, things are named after people who give the money, right?
Pamela: That does often happen, and one of the interesting things about the James Webb exception is James Webb was not a scientist. James Webb was a NASA Administrator, and there’s actually some controversy surrounding his time as a NASA Administrator. But he was also one of the ones who was responsible for help getting the Great Observatories programs, which is pretty much culminating in the James Webb Space Telescope, off and going and running.
So, it’s fascinating just how these things end up happening, and what’s even more interesting, and part of what inspired this show, is there’s often this desire to give things names that match together. So, we have OSIRIS-REx is going to the asteroid Bennu. So, that is entirely death-centered. So, you have Egyptian god of the Underworld. Bennu relates to the Underworld as well. Now, with the mission that recently came – took culmination, Rosetta, you have Rosetta, the main spacecraft, and Philae, the lander. And what I love is how this ties in to translating ideas and figuring out how to bridge from one set of things to another when we don’t have a key.
So, comets are considered to be one of the keys for understanding solar system formation, and the Rosetta Stone was a stone that had things written out in multiple languages, allowing early translation. And the Philae Obelisk also had both hieroglyphics and Greek lettering on it, and while it wasn’t a one-for-one translation, there was enough overlap between the two that it started the process of being able to say, “Oh, this hieroglyphic means Ptolemy, this hieroglyphic means Cleopatra.”
And so, there’s this idea of we’re going to translate our solar system, so let’s name the missions after things that translate. Swift is another one where – the idea behind Swift was to very quickly get your spacecraft on target to track down the gamma ray burst precursor objects to see those early afterglows, so that we could identify what was the source of gamma rays. So, Swift was just a straightforward name for this is what this telescope does.
Fraser: Quickly.
Pamela: Yes.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know. So what about things like New Horizons? Were you around when New Horizons got its name?
Pamela: I wasn’t. Well, I mean, I existed. I was alive. But I wasn’t exactly part of that discussion.
Fraser: Right, yeah, because originally, it was going to be, I think, Pluto Express –?
Pamela: Yes.
Fraser: And then, a sort of a different mission got put together that was going to be called New Horizons. So in a lot of cases, the missions have one name and then as the final version of it comes together – like, we’re seeing this with the Europa Clipper
Pamela: Yes.
Fraser: Which was the previous Europa Mission. But then, you know, it’s different enough. We don’t even know – do we even know what the new Europa Mission’s going to be called?
Pamela: I don’t think so yet.
Fraser: No. I don’t think so. Maybe. The chat will probably tell us. But this is one of those things that – if the mission is substantially changed from what it is in the planning stages to what the final mission is going to be, it can often get a different name. Because the original name and the original team, it’s scrapped, and then a new team comes forward and puts together a different mission.
And I think, if you have a really great name for your mission, and then your mission doesn’t make it past the planning stages and then moves into the next stage, and it gets a complete – then, you know, you have to lose that name, because I guess there’s like a negative brand associated with the mission –? I’m not really sure why this happens, you know. Like, can we never have a Terrestrial Planet Finder? Is that name now destroyed?
Pamela: I don’t know, because LISA keeps getting resurrected, and the idea behind that mission has been changed 10,000,000 different times. So, it’s unclear exactly what happens in the years prior to launch and after launch.
Fraser: One thing I think is great is the naming convention that SpaceX is taking with its barges. So, the names of them are, like, Of Course I Love You. Anyway, they’re – the spacecraft from Iain M. Banks’ books. They actually took –
Pamela: Oh, that’s cool.
Fraser: Yeah, so they took the names from this really cool science-fiction series, the names of spaceships, and they named them for the actual – the landing barges. And then they’ve done this again with the new spacecraft that’s going to going to go with the interplanetary transport ship. They’re calling it The Heart of Gold.
Pamela: That’s –
Fraser: Which comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That’s the one that has the – you know, the Infinite Improbability Drive. And that’s a wonderful name. Now, who knows? If they actually crank up the plans to colonize Mars, they’re going to run out of names pretty fast, if they’re going to be sending 1,000 spacecraft carrying 200 people at the same Mars window. You know, what do you call 1,000 different spacecraft?
But – What about the Space Shuttles? You know, they’ve got some great names. Some of the manned spacecraft.
Pamela: So, with the Space Shuttles, there is a mixed set of origins. Enterprise was actually named after the starship –
Fraser: Yeah, which is awesome!
Pamela: Enterprise from, like, Gene Rodenberry’s series. So, there you have the original, and then Columbia was named after Columbus, which – mixed emotions, but it was the 80s, different time. It was actually named in the 70s, very different time.
But then, as you get to the newer ones, Endeavor was, again, named by kids. So, you have this history of trying to inspire through the names as well as engage the public as much as possible with the names. Now, what’s cool is we also periodically reuse spacecraft, and –
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: In the reusing, they also get renamed. So, for instance, there’s the new NEOWISE that is using the WISE Telescope, which – I love this particular story, because WISE completed its survey, completed its whole plans for infrared mapping, and then got put into a parking orbit, so they didn’t crash it through the atmosphere. It was completely safe up there.
And then, after a period of time, they’re like, “Oh, we know how to use this again, and we shall use it again!” And so it got repurposed into the NEOWISE, which is being used to look for near-earth objects. So, we now have the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. And that is just cool. And then – well, literally, it’s looking with infrared.
And then we have the Keppler Mission, which, when it was no longer able to do its original core mission of sitting on one field, observing it forever with very, very precise – all the things – when they brought it back online, it became K2. So, it’s Keppler 2. They’re acknowledging this is a new mission, a new data set, and things are a little bit different now.
Fraser: And there’s some things that have gotten completely different names. Actually, the name is escaping me, but there’s a couple of missions that have actually gotten a completely different name because they’ve been given a completely different task from what they were doing.
Pamela: One of the comet missions that happened to, and I’m having the exact same mind blank you’re having.
Fraser: Was it – it wasn’t Deep Space 1. I’m sure the chat’s going to tell us, but it had like a lot of X’s and – in the name, and I’m forgetting the name of the spacecraft. But essentially, it was – you know, it was mission to complete – its main target, and then had a second mission, and it was given a completely new name, which is really cool. And I love that. I love that idea.
And, you know, I can imagine, of course, once Canada – once we volunteer to take over any of the missions that you Americans don’t want to manage anymore – we’ll give them good Canadian names, rename them, you know? We’ll call that, you know, Keep Your Eye on the Puck, or something like that.
Pamela: Well, you guys are always out there building an arm and giving everyone an extra hand when they need it.
Fraser: Oh, why can’t I remember this – name of this mission? Ohh – I feel so sad. So, what is your favorite name? Do you have a favorite spacecraft name?
Pamela: I have to admit, OSIRIS-REx just pleases me to no end. And part of this is because I, for better or worse, have a long history of giving my computers very bleak names. So, I have Strider, which comes from The Lord of the Rings series, I have Styx, which comes from mythology, Aradani comes from mythology – and so, it’s just like OSIRIS-REx fits in with all my technology, and hopefully it will live as long as my technology lives, because, apparently, when you name a computer after death, it’s determined to ironically stay alive.
Fraser: Right. I think I like Curiosity. I think that really encapsulates the mission and sort of what the purpose of science is, and I really like that name. Now, my wife just chimed in and she likes the name the Falcon, and the Falcon Heavy, so she likes naming those spacecraft, those rockets, after birds, which is pretty cool.
Pamela: I have to admit that one of my favorite logos has been the t-shirts that people have done with Free Spirit, for when the Spirit Rover got stuck in the sand.
Fraser: Yes.
Pamela: And I just love the word play that has been involved with Spirit and Opportunity.
Fraser: Alright. Let us know what you think is your favorite name. Join us in the chat next week. Thanks a lot, Pamela.
Pamela: My pleasure.
Male voice: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a nonprofit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com, tweet us at @astronomycast, like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google+.
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[End of Audio]
Duration: 28 minutes

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