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NASA has used a variety of naming conventions for both crewed and robotic spacecraft throughout its history. (credit: NASA)

“A rose, by any other name”: Proposing a national naming competition for our lunar exploration program (part 1)

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What’s in a name?

Names exist deeply in our collective consciousness. We all are named, and we all name.

For Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet, it is the embodiment of forbidden love. The last name of her amour, “Montague,” bears significance—in her and Romeo’s case, the tragic implications of a familial rivalry. Much the same, names have weight in the real world, especially so for the real-world explorers of yesteryear and today. Craft of discovery have been personified by their names throughout the ages, imbuing them with a certain mystique and a lasting sense of heritage. Consider the more famous names of vessels past: the “Santa Maria.” Shackleton’s “Endurance.” Darwin’s “Beagle.” Apollo’s “Snoopy” and “Eagle.” “Challenger.” “Columbia.” “Discovery.” “Atlantis.” “Sojourner.” “Opportunity.” “Curiosity.” “Perseverance.” The list goes on.

You need not be a literary critic, a historian of exploration, or a philosopher to innately understand that names have profound meaning. They are something fundamental about us. Names are a core, almost indescribably instinctual, part of human experience and condition; they’re a universal method by which we conceptualize and reference people, places, things, and events. Names exist deeply in our collective consciousness. We all are named, and we all name.

The names of spacecraft past and present are broadly known to insiders within the space community, and for us are perhaps “second of mind” to the technology, scientific discoveries, and feats of exploration of the missions they endow. But aside from tangible artefacts, such as photographs and astronaut “heroes,” names are, for the general public, the most ubiquitous cultural element of spaceflight; a simple, digestible way to connect with our story in space.

In a thought-provoking op-ed written last year, “Artemis and Taming the Extraordinary,” author G. Ryan Faith talked about the act of annual ritual, another fundamental feature of human nature. He proposed that the space community would do well to coopt ritual, through a deliberate and set annual cadence of launch akin to our holiday calendar, to renew a shared cultural focus on and celebration of spaceflight.

I think his premise is on to something. Names—and the ability to choose them, the act of naming—can, like ritual, be a powerfully resonant tool of use for us in the space community. When deliberately employed, it can inspire and explain the space enterprise to communities beyond our “usual” stakeholders. Names, after all, have nothing to do with an interest in or passion for space.

Indeed, this idea has been done before, which I discuss in this essay; I therefore offer here a tried-and-true proposal with an intent similar to Faith’s.

We can more meaningfully and intentionally connect the broad public to our nation’s upcoming lunar exploration campaign by affording them an opportunity to name it. I suggest that the United States Congress consider authorizing a national educational naming competition for elements of the Artemis program; or, NASA—or, its commercial contractors—could independently implement one.

This piece is broken into several elements. To set the stage with historical context, it reviews NASA’s documented naming conventions for the vessels the agency has sent into space, as well as the emerging naming practices of the commercial sector. From there, the essay discusses the successes and stumbles of exercises in public naming. I close by addressing the rationale behind my suggestion and with a simple legislative proposal by which it could be implemented.

“That which we call a rose…”: On naming conventions and practice, past and present

An immediate critique against the suggestion of a naming competition is that it breaks from NASA’s longstanding naming traditions and precedents (if those in fact existed in some lasting fashion). It would, then, be apt to begin by exploring those traditions. Even if a “side story” to the overall premise of this essay, the history of spacecraft naming convention is richly fascinating and warrants a brief retelling.

The names of lunar probes were patterned after land exploration activities. The names of planetary mission probes, meanwhile, were patterned after nautical terms, to convey "the impression of travel to great distances and remote lands."

According to most accounts, NASA’s naming process begins with the “Ad Hoc Committee to Name Space Projects and Objects,” an informal internal working group convened in 1960 to develop a “well-defined protocol” for naming missions” “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” [named two years prior, in 1958]. The committee placed emphasis on a mission naming convention that was “suggestive of the mission at-hand,” and which “reflected the series of which it was a part.”

This emphasis became the basis of the “Cortright system” for naming space probes, adopted in May 1960. This served as the framework for NASA’s early solar system missions of discovery through the Viking missions. At the suggestion of Edgar M. Cortright, Assistant Director of Lunar and Planetary Programs, the names of lunar probes were patterned after land exploration activities. The names of planetary mission probes, meanwhile, were patterned after nautical terms, to convey "the impression of travel to great distances and remote lands."

The Ad Hoc Committee to Name Space Projects and Objects became officially formalized in 1961, as the “Project Designation Committee,” and was appointed to review and recommend specific project names. According to its management instructions,

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, thus limiting the number of different names in use at any one time; however, serialization will be used only after successful flight or accomplishment has been achieved.

The committee met to consider specific names and solicited suggestions from field centers as categories for future missions and projects were defined. Circumstances, however, would see to it otherwise: many of the approved names developed were never used and the committee’s influence waned by 1963. Most of the projects under its naming purview had by then been deferred or canceled and NASA’s other ongoing projects were already named. As new projects were approved, the “working names” commonly used by the program offices were frequently adopted instead. Revived in 1970, the committee meets now only to consider specific requests for official project names, as it did for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and the posthumous re-numbering of AS-204, Apollo 1.

According to NASA's former chief historian, Bill Barry, NASA name selection follows the de facto process adopted after the decline of the Project Designation Committee’s influence—defaulting to the official-in-charge at the relevant NASA headquarters or to the mission’s principal investigator:

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. 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.

This process gave birth to many of the immortalized names of NASA’s famous “Space Race” programs and missions, as made clear by an authoritative (if dated) NASA historical survey, “Origins of NASA Names.” Among them are Pioneer, Ranger, Gemini, and Apollo.

The Ranger missions to the Moon got their name in part because the program director once used a pickup truck by that name on a camping trip. (credit: NASA)

The Pioneer program—true to its calling, the first series of NASA’s missions beyond Earth orbit and into the outer solar system—was named in 1958, prior to the standup of the Ad Hoc Committee. As a project inherited from the Air Force, the story behind its name reveals the civil-military and inter-service competition ubiquitous in the very early days of the United States’ space efforts. It was

attributed to Stephen A. Saliga, who had been assigned to the Air Force Orientation Group, Wright Patterson AFB, as chief designer of Air Force exhibits. While he was at a briefing, the spacecraft was described to him as a “lunar-orbiting vehicle with an infrared scanning device.” Saliga thought the title too long and lacked theme for an exhibit design. He suggested “Pioneer” as the name of the probe since “the Army had already launched and orbited the Explorer satellite and their Public Information Office was identifying the Army as ‘Pioneers in Space,’” and by adopting the name the Air Force would “make a ‘quantum jump’ as to who really [were] the ‘Pioneers in Space.’”

The lunar Ranger probes helped inform the Cortright naming guidelines, which in turn informed the names of the later Surveyor and Mariner programs. The project was initiated, unnamed, in 1959; in early 1960 Dr. William H. Pickering, JPL’s director, recommended that NASA headquarters approve the name “Ranger” used by JPL for the project. The name had been

[i]ntroduced by the JPL program director, Clifford D. Cummings, who had noticed while on a camping trip that his pick-up truck was called “Ranger.” Cummings liked the name and, because it referred to “land exploration activities,” suggested it as a name for the lunar impact probe. By May 1960 it was in common use.

Initially named “Mercury Mark II,” Project Gemini—NASA’s second human spaceflight program—was the first to be named through the influence (depending on perspective) of “public” input.

NASA Headquarters personnel were asked for proposals for an appropriate name for the project and, in a December 1961 speech at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, Dr. Robert C. Seamans, Jr., then NASA Associate Administrator, described Mercury Mark II, adding an offer of a token reward to the person suggesting the name finally accepted. A member of the audience sent him the name “Gemini.” Meanwhile, Alex P. Nagy in NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight also had proposed "Gemini." Dr. Seamans recognized both as authors of the name.

For Apollo,

The name […] 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 ratified at the conference and “Project Apollo” was announced as the official name for NASA's circumlunar ambitions.

And for the Viking Program, NASA’s first soft landing on Mars,

The name had been suggested by Walter Jacobowski in the Planetary Programs Office at NASA Headquarters and discussed at a management review held at Langley Research Center in November 1968. It was the consensus at the meeting that “Viking” was a suitable name in that it reflected the spirit of nautical exploration in the same manner as “Mariner,” according to the Cortright system of naming space probes. The name was subsequently sent to the NASA Project Designation Committee and approved.

Sometime in the 1980s, the Cortright naming system began to break down. In its place, we now have a variety of names, seemingly following different conventions, for missions into the solar system. Galileo and Cassini-Huygens, to Jupiter and Saturn respectively, were named after the eminent Renaissance astronomers. MAVEN to Mars and the upcoming VERITAS to Venus, are acronymic names drawn from the ancient world. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have names that are functionally descriptive.

NASA had a sporadically applied policy allowing NASA’s astronauts to themselves name their spacecraft from Mercury through Apollo.

This is not to suggest there are no “regulations or procedures” in place today for spacecraft names. In December 2022, NASA instituted updates to its naming protocol through NPD (NASA Policy Directive) 7620.1J.

Under this updated policy, the relevant NASA official-in-charge is responsible for “assembling an ad hoc name selection team consisting of at least one member representing the office in which a project name is under consideration” and at least “one member representing every other NASA Headquarters office participating in the management of a significant element of or having other major involvement in the project;” a NASA “historian should be a member of any naming team or included early in any consideration process, with responsibility of providing a verifiable review of any individual whose name is being considered […].” The policy directs the official-in-charge to solicit suggestions for names, particularly from the NASA centers and contractors responsible for the project.

Notably, the guidelines specify that project names should, to the extent possible, avoid being named after individuals (a reaction to the controversy over the James Webb Space Telescope’s naming). Rather, “the theme of unity, inspiration, or the accomplishments of a person as the primary criterion for a project or mission name” should be used. They also state that project names simply need to be "easily pronounced;" acronyms should "be avoided … except where the acronym is descriptive;" that the name “reflects the purpose of the mission of the mission or activity whenever possible;” and that no two missions or spacecrafts will have the same name. Hence, recent vessels of solar system exploration such as MESSENGER, New Horizons, InSight, and Phoenix follow appropriate naming protocol, if not a distinct pattern.

NASA’s early human spaceflight missions involved another form of naming convention. As William Pogue, an astronaut aboard Skylab 4, wrote (telling humorous anecdotes on the internal confusion and bureaucratic consternation it occasionally caused), NASA had a sporadically applied policy allowing NASA’s astronauts to themselves name their spacecraft from Mercury through Apollo.

Under this convention, the mission’s official designation took precedence, followed by the name ascribed to the spacecraft by its crew. In the case of Mercury:

Astronaut Mission Spacecraft Name
Shepard Mercury Redstone 3 (MR-3) Freedom 7
Grissom Mercury Redstone (MR-4) Liberty Bell 7
Glenn Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6) Friendship 7
Carpenter Mercury Atlas (MA-7) Aurora 7
Schirra Mercury Atlas (MA-8) Sigma 7
Cooper Mercury Atlas (MA-9) Faith 7

A few interesting tidbits can be pulled from Pogue’s research. Alan Shepard’s “Freedom 7,” the first crewed American launch into space, set precedent such that the following Mercury capsules’ names would end in “7.” This is commonly understood, and was explained by Shepard himself after his flight, as an homage to the “Mercury Seven” class of pilots in NASA’s Astronaut Group 1. Whether Shepard originally named his capsule with this in mind, or because it was simply the seventh off the Mercury manufacturing line, is a matter of speculation.

Far from surprising, the astronaut cadre wasn’t always in agreement with its leadership. Gordon Cooper chose to name his capsule “Faith 7,” to symbolize his “trust in God, my country, and my teammates.” NASA headquarters raised concerns, with the Washington Post reportedly telling its readers that a mission failure could lead to uncomfortable headlines such as “the United States today lost Faith.” Nonetheless, Cooper and his suggestion ultimately won.

Gus Grissom’s playful creativity upset NASA overseers enough that a hiatus on the astronaut-driven naming process was put in effect until Apollo. After the splashdown of Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7, the capsule’s hatch unexpectedly blew off and the water-logged spacecraft eventually sank, much to his dismay. As the commander of Gemini 3—the first crewed Gemini flight—Grissom thought it would be appropriate to name his capsule after Molly Brown, the “unsinkable” hero of a hit contemporary Broadway play (covering her remarkable story of surviving the Titanic disaster.) NASA’s leadership thought the name undignified and asked Grissom to submit a second one—to which he threatened straight to the point, “Titanic.” So, Molly Brown it was for Gemini 3.

A frustrated headquarters put an end to the practice of astronaut name recommendations for the remainder of the Gemini program, only restarting it with a new class during Apollo 9.

As for the Apollo missions, the names chosen for their Command Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module (LM) were:

Astronauts Mission CSM Name LM Name
McDivitt, Scott, Schweickart Apollo 9 Gumdrop Spider
Stafford, Young, Cernan Apollo 10 Charlie Brown Snoopy
Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin Apollo 11 Columbia Eagle
Conrad, Gordon, Bean Apollo 12 Yankee Clipper Intrepid
Lovell, Swigert, Haise Apollo 13 Odyssey Aquarius
Shepard, Roosa, Mitchell Apollo 14 Kitty Hawk Antares
Scott, Worden, Irwin Apollo 15 Endeavour Falcon
Young, Mattingly, Duke Apollo 16 Casper Orion
Cernan, Evans, Schmitt Apollo 17 America Challenger

The current era of Commercial Crew has seen the return to the practice of NASA astronauts naming their craft.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour ahead of its launch earlier this month on its fifth trip to space. (credit: SpaceX)
There is no distinctly consistent approach to how names have been or are selected. Standard conventions are followed… until they’re not.

For Commercial Crew test astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, “Dragon Capsule C206”—the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft manufactured for the first crewed test flight to the International Space Station—wasn’t a fitting name for a history-making vehicle. They named it “Endeavour” after the shuttle aboard which they both first flew; a name that the Crew-2 astronauts opted to keep. In explaining the decision to name their ride to space, Hurley acknowledged the practice of the Mercury and Apollo astronauts, saying that “[this] is a tradition that we have had over the years with spacecraft going way back to the Mercury-era […] a tradition that has been carried on ever since with all of our space vehicles.”

The Commercial Crew cadre that followed have stayed with the practice for their own Dragon capsules. In 2020, amid the global COVID pandemic, Crew-1 named theirs “Resilience” as “all of us can agree that 2020 has certainly been a challenging year, [with] a global pandemic, economic hardships, social unrest [and] isolation. Despite all of that, SpaceX and NASA have kept the production line open and finished this amazing vehicle that is getting ready to go on its maiden flight to the International Space Station.”

Crew-3 chose “Endurance” as a tribute to Shackleton’s famous Trans-Antarctic Expedition ship and “to the tenacity of human spirit as we push humans and machines farther than we ever have, going both to stay in extended stays for low earth orbit, opening it up to private companies and private astronauts, and knowing that we’ll continue our exploration to go even farther.”

Crew-4 opted for “Freedom” in a show of respect to Alan Shepard’s pioneering mission and to “celebrate a fundamental human right, and the industry and innovation that emanate from the unencumbered human spirit.”

The flight names of this current generation of crewed missions (SpaceX Crew Dragons, to-date), private and public, are:

Astronauts Mission Capsule Name
Hurley, Behnken Crew Demo-2 C206 Endeavour
Hopkins, Glover, Noguchi, Walker Crew-1 C207 Resilience
Kimbrough, McArthur, Hoshide, Pesquet Crew-2 C206 Endeavour
Isaacman, Proctor, Arceneaux, Sembroski Inspiration4 C207 Resilience
Chan, Marshburn, Maurer, Barron Crew-3 C210 Endurance
Lopez-Alegria, Connor, Stibbe, Pathy AX-1 C206 Endeavour
Lindgren, Hines, Watkins, Cristoforetti Crew-4 C212 Freedom
Mann, Cassada, Wakata, Kikina Crew-5 C210 Endurance
Bowen, Hoburg, Al Neyadi, Fedyaev Crew-6 C206 Endeavour
Whitson, Shoffner, AlQarni, Barnawi AX-2 C212 Freedom
Moghbeli, Mogensen, Furukawa, Borisov Crew-7 C210 Endurance
Lopez-Alegria, Villadei, Gezeravci, Wandt AX-3 C212 Freedom
Dominick, Barratt, Epss, Grebenkin Crew-8 C206 Endeavour

The practice of naming current and next-generation spacecraft doesn’t end there. In 2020, Sierra Space unveiled the name of its first Dream Chaser spacecraft—selected to participate in NASA’s Commercial Cargo program and designed to carry cargo, and eventually crew, to stations in low Earth orbit—as “Tenacity.” In the words of company president Eren Ozmen, “Tenacity is in SNC’s DNA. Every critical moment in SNC’s history of innovation has called for tenacity in overcoming challenges in order to support and protect explorers and heroes. As the nation faces this current challenge, we want this vehicle to be a beacon of hope that American ingenuity, and tenacity, will bring brighter days ahead.”

Likewise, Northrop Grumman—and formerly Orbital ATK and, before that, Orbital Sciences Corporation, prior to its acquisition—has taken to the practice of naming each Cygnus cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station after prominent NASA leaders, astronauts, and changemakers who have “made significant contributions to human spaceflight.” NG-19, for example, was named on the 20th anniversary of the Columbia disaster in honor of Laurel Clark, whose first (and tragically last) spaceflight was aboard STS-107. The latest, NG-20, is named after Dr. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson, a medical doctor and NASA astronaut scheduled to fly to the ISS in 2002 before her untimely death in 2001.

Naming spacecraft and missions has been a practice throughout the history of spaceflight. However, as history makes apparent, there is no distinctly consistent approach to how names have been or are selected. Standard conventions are followed… until they’re not. Names are chosen by committee, by leadership, by crews, by creators. Typically, these names resonate with the inspirational nature of spaceflight or to honor the spirit of exploration (as one would perhaps expect), although Gus Grissom stands out as a creative exception.

As will be discussed in part two of this essay, however, another approach has occasionally been used to name our vessels and voyages in outer space: allowing the public to weigh in. And as I will describe, this approach may be one for us to consider for Artemis.

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