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Here’s How NASA Names the Spacecraft It Hurls Into the Void

Would the Apollo mission have been as sweet by any other name?
Image: NASA

There is a certain poetry to the christening of a NASA spacecraft. With names like Viking, Voyager, and Apollo, there is a mythos at work here, with the agency frequently pulling from a limitless reservoir of archetypal stories. Yet, in other instances, the names of spacecraft are entirely mundane (see: International Space Station), or comprised of an awkward terminological soup for the sake of a acronym (see: Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory).


So, to pose the Shakespearean question, what's in a name? Who decides whether the name is going to be something inspirational and awe-inspiring, or functional and mundane? For that matter, who gets to choose spacecraft names in the first place?

As it turns out, NASA has had a protocol in place since the early 60s for exactly this purpose, although naming methods have continued to evolve over the past half century.

It started with the Ad Hoc Committee to Name Space Projects and Objects, which began to informally convene for the purpose of coming up with a well-defined protocol for selecting names for NASA missions. This eventually coalesced into the Project Designation Committee, which in 1961 became the formal oversight committee for the naming of all future spacecraft.

The criteria for naming handed down to the PDC was relatively simple. The guidelines stated:

Each project name will be a simple euphonic word that will not duplicate or be confused with other NASA or non-NASA project titles. When possible and if appropriate, names will be chosen to reflect NASA's mission. Project names will be serialized when appropriate…however, serialization will be used only after successful flight or accomplishment has been achieved.

The reign of the Project Designation Committee was short lived, however, with the committee's influence dampened after 1963 as many projects became deferred, canceled, or were part of an ongoing series which didn't require any new names. It was officially revived in 1970, but the group only meets when specifically requested to do so. In 2000, NASA instituted a new naming protocol with a few minor addendums to the original naming procedure, such as requiring the names to be easily pronounced and generally avoiding acronyms except where those acronyms are descriptive.


According to NASA's Chief Historian Bill Barry, the selection of mission names these days often faults to the Official-in-Charge at the relevant NASA headquarters.

"The Official-in-Charge of the appropriate NASA Headquarters office is responsible for identifying missions that need a name and assembling a committee to recommend names," Barry said. "How that committee works is up to the Official in Charge and there really isn't a "preferred" method [for naming craft]. Most of the proposals come with a name chosen by the Principal Investigator and NASA normally adopts these names."

Yet, despite the bureaucratic overtones, NASA manages to stay creative in the name game and to prove it, here are the stories behind the names of some of its most famous spacecraft.

Image: Oleg Yunakov/Wiki


The history of the Enterprise's name is a bizarre one. Originally, NASA had planned to name the shuttle the Constitution, with plans so far advanced that the shuttle's unveiling was scheduled on Constitution Day, 1976. These plans were waylaid by an unlikely lobby however, a group of hardcore Trekkies who initiated a letter writing campaign to incumbent president Gerald Ford, imploring him to change the name of the space shuttle to the Enterprise. By the time the campaign had ended, they had managed to gather nearly 100,000 signatures in support of naming the shuttle Enterprise.

That September, just two weeks before the scheduled unveiling of the space shuttle, Ford vetoed the name Constitution, saying that he was "a little partial to the name Enterprise." According to the president, this name was chosen for two reasons: he had served on a naval ship in the Pacific of the same name and the space shuttle was an international affair, thus naming it the Constitution would be faux pas. While the president never mentioned the letter writing campaign while detailing the reasons behind his decision, one can't help but wonder if Ford might have been a huge Trekkie himself.


Image: David/Flickr


The name for the Apollo project was originally proposed by Abe Silverstein, NASA's Director of Space Flight Development at a conference in July of 1960. Silverstein allegedly chose this name for its positive connotations, the Greek god Apollo being the responsible for pulling the sun across the sky with his chariot each day. The name was in keeping with the Ad Hoc Committee's decree that "tentatively…the manned space flight programs will be named after the gods and heroes of mythology, thus continuing in the present class begun by Mercury."

The name was ratified at the conference and "Project Apollo" was announced as the official name for NASA's circumlunar ambitions.

As for the codenames for the lunar and command modules beginning with the launch of Apollo 9 in 1969, these decisions were passed on to the astronauts themselves. While Apollo 11's lunar module codename Eagle will forever remain a part of the national consciousness, the rest of the code names will probably be lost to history and maybe that's for the better. With names such as Gum Drop and Spider (Apollo 9), Charlie Brown and Snoopy (Apollo 10), Yankee Clipper (Apollo 12), and Casper (Apollo 16), it seems as though Neil and his crew had made a uniquely elegant choice in naming their craft for that historic moment in July of 1969.

Image: NASA


Launched in 1996, the Mars Pathfinder's rover only got its name after a year-long, worldwide call for entries from children under the age of 18 which began in January of 1995. The criteria for the name selection was basic: Students must choose a favorite heroine and write an essay detailing her accomplishments and how these accomplishments might translate to the Martian surface.

The agency received over 3,500 applications but ultimately selected Sojourner Truth as the rover's namesake. The name was submitted by a 12 year old from Connecticut, who believed Sojourner to be appropriate because it was her mission "to travel up and down the land" advocating for abolition and women's rights. Other names that were popular in the contest were Sacajewea, Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman, and Thumbelina, with the second and third place winners being scientist Marie Curie and astronaut Judith Resnik.


This essay contest approach to naming spacecraft is not at all out of the ordinary, having been responsible for the naming of several NASA spacecraft, such as the space shuttle Endeavor and the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. While there is no overarching theme or process in the crowdsourced naming of these projects (the Endeavor's criteria suggested picking the name of an old "ship of exploration"), according to Barry, "If there is a general theme, I'd suggest it is that NASA tends to make use of these contests to engage and inspire young people."

Opportunity. Image: NASA


If inspiring children is the name of the game, then look no further than the story of the twin Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. In a contest hosted by the Planetary Society and Lego, NASA received over 10,000 entries for consideration in naming the latest generation of Mars exploration rovers. The winner of the contest was nine year-old Sofi Collis from Arizona, a Russian-American who was adopted at the age of two from an orphanage in Siberia.

As Sofi wrote in her essay, "I used to live in an orphanage. It was dark and cold and lonely. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the Spirit and the Opportunity."


The Ranger lunar probe series began in 1961 as an effort by NASA to "acquire and transmit a number of images from the lunar surface." This lunar probe series was christened by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's program director Clifford Cummings following a camping trip during which he noticed the name of his pickup truck was "Ranger." Liking how the name evoked images of land exploration, he proposed it for the lunar probe missions and it quickly caught on.

Image: Charles Atkeison/Flickr



While it may not admit to any overt naming schemes, NASA certainly has nevertheless demonstrated a thematic consistency over the years. Next to the deities of antiquity, naming spacecraft after seafaring ships is a close runner up in the names department—in fact, this is where all the space shuttles got their names. It makes sense: like the explorers of yore, the modern day explorers are also venturing to uncharted land, trading canvas sails for solar sails and tidal waves for cosmic waves …or something.

The Discovery was named after two ships bearing the same name. There was the one commandeered by Henry Hudson in 1610 while he searched for a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific, and then there was the vessel in which Captain Cook explored the Hawaiian Islands and southern shores of Alaska.

Columbia was the first shuttle in space, and while it definitely evokes images of the infamous Spanish explorer, it is actually named after the Columbia Rediviva, which became the first boat to circumnavigate the globe in 1790.

Atlantis, meanwhile, is named after a oceanographic research vessel that operated between 1930 and 1966, making it the first American ship built for the sole purpose of oceanographic research. It was subsequently purchased by Argentina and is still in use, having sailed over 1.3 million miles since its launch, which pales in comparison to its space shuttle namesake, which traveled well over 120 million miles during its lifetime.