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COLBERT treadmill
A naming contest that went a bit awry led to a treadmill on the International Space Station being named for Stephen Colbert, complete with a custom patch. (credit: NASA)

“A rose, by any other name”: Proposing a national naming competition for our lunar exploration program (part 2)

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“By any other name…”: On naming competitions and outreach

Public consultation can take many forms: invited expert input, advisory committees, informal and formal “requests for information”—and write-in competitions.

For one NASA Public Affairs representative, speaking anonymously at the time, NASA’s decision to not name the module after Colbert “was a squandered PR coup.”

Public naming competitions are, as it turns out, more common than not, for everything from new buildings and bridges to snowplows and street sweepers. Within the space sector, they’ve been used to name, among other things, newly discovered exoplanets, European Space Agency missions to the International Space Station, and craters on Mercury.

These competitions are nothing new to NASA. In recent years, NASA has turned to the public’s input and imagination in competitions to name the 2020 Mars Perseverance Rover and its accompanying Ingenuity helicopter. The public was invited to name a free-flying robot aboard the International Space Station, as well as the station’s Harmony module. The individual spacecraft of NASA’s dual-craft lunar Grail mission, Ebb and Flow, were a student’s suggestion. Competitions have supplied names across the solar system, from an Antarctic NASA habitat to a Moon-bound manikin aboard the Artemis 1 test flight to 101995 Bennu, the asteroid studied by OSIRIS-Rex, and all the way to Pluto and its geography.

NASA has held these competitions for quite some time and for some of its highest-profile efforts. The first Mars rover, Sojourner, along with the follow-on Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers, were named through (or strongly influenced by) suggestions from students. The Space Shuttle Endeavour, one of the most visible of NASA’s vessels, was likewise named in a national educational competition. Something can be said too of the (notably unsponsored) public write-in campaign that (likely) led to the (re)naming of the test shuttle Enterprise.

And there’s the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or C.O.L.B.E.R.T., aboard the International Space Station. The treadmill’s name is the result of an open internet naming competition for NASA’s to-be-flown space station module that was “won” by the comedian Stephen Colbert, whose fans flooded the competition following a segment on his “The Colbert Report” show that covered it. NASA instead opted to name the module “Tranquility,” reasoning that “Apollo 11 landed on the moon at the Sea of Tranquility 40 years ago this July […] it ties it to exploration and the moon, and symbolizes the spirit of international cooperation embodied by the space station.”

For one NASA Public Affairs representative, speaking anonymously at the time, NASA’s decision to not name the module after Colbert “was a squandered PR coup […] for the longest time the public has displayed virtually no interest in what NASA is doing and here they had an effort that saw an enormous amount of support and what did they do? They said, sorry, we don’t care what you think, we’re going to name it whatever we want. When NASA acts that way? They shouldn’t be surprised there’s so much apathy toward their efforts.”

Eventually, the agency and the comedian came to a (comedically appropriate) compromise, agreeing that his name would at the least be fitting for exercise hardware aboard the station.

NASA did ultimately turn its public relations conundrum into a “public relations coup,” with Colbert interviewing the NASA deputy chief of the Astronaut Office, astronaut Sunita Williams, to announce the treadmill’s name. He followed it with joke-laden segments on the launch of C.O.L.B.E.R.T. to the International Space Station and on his support for the space program in general.

Evidently, the reach of Colbert’s publicity drew significant attention to the naming competition and, by extension, to the International Space Station and NASA itself. Of the 1.2 million votes cast in the competition, Colbert received more than 230,000, beating out NASA’s own suggestion, Serenity, by more than 40,000.

NASA’s more “successful” naming campaigns have most frequently been designed and implemented with specific educational criteria in mind, and tailored toward particular audiences.

The experience with C.O.L.B.E.R.T. is quite similar to an infamous £200-million polar research vessel, the R.R.S. Sir David Attenborough—or, as desired by the public majority in another example of an open online poll gone viral, “Boaty McBoatface.” While the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, which manages that boat, similarly exercised its authority to unilaterally select a name, it did offer the public a consolation prize. The public’s naming desires were granted for the arctic vessel’s autonomous underwater vehicle, which now bears the Boaty McBoatface moniker.

Notably, the viral popularity of the naming competition, and of the Boaty McBoatface suggestion, drove Google searches for the Natural Environment Research Council over 100% in a matter of months, according to Forbes. It gave widespread exposure to an important field of scientific research which otherwise would have been relegated to its niche, specialized community. Indeed, recognizing the opportunity afforded by its vessel’s silly, yet popularly selected, name, the Natural Environment Research Council created “a fully-inflatable and cartoon likeness” of Boaty McBoatface that travels to educational events across the country.

Mather Perseverance
Alexander Mather won a NASA naming contest to name the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance. (credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

“…would smell as sweet”: On the educational impact of a naming competition

The circumstances of C.O.L.B.E.R.T. and Boaty McBoatface reveal the risks—depending on your perspective—of a laissez-faire approach to public naming. The curious case of Boaty McBoatface inspired numerous articles cautioning against asking for the public’s input, citing its potential “pitfalls.” Yet at the same time, these competitions demonstrate the not-to-be-underestimated power of “letting the public choose.” Public competitions, in many shapes and forms, bring unparalleled public attention. They become a cause.

Better put in the words of Trevor Nace, a professionally trained geologist and the author of the Forbes article covering Boaty McBoatface,

Viral campaigns can be a trigger for change in the future and present the spark needed to entice new investment and interest. This viral boat naming campaign hopefully sparked the imagination of youth, otherwise unaware of environmental research. It will be imperative that we understand how and why polar regions are changing so dramatically in the previous decades. This information will undoubtedly help lead global policy discussions and impart a sense of urgency in world leaders.

C.O.L.B.E.R.T. and Boaty McBoatface were unique, or at least very well publicized, in today’s viral era by the open nature of their competition. However, NASA’s more “successful” naming campaigns have most frequently been designed and implemented with specific educational criteria in mind, and tailored toward particular audiences (often, educators and students). Those campaigns have benefited from, and have benefited their participants through, well-crafted guidelines and guardrails.

In the aforementioned case of shuttle Endeavour, the competition required students to choose “[a] name based on an exploratory or research sea vessel that had previously sailed. [One that was] appropriate for a spacecraft [and would] capture the spirit of America’s mission in space. [Also, NASA] wanted a name that would be easy to pronounce clearly over radio transmissions.” These criteria were ideas from NASA, but the concept of a naming competition itself was introduced by Rep. Thomas Lewis (R-FL) in the 99th Congress, with his joint resolution ”to provide that if construction of an additional space shuttle orbiter is authorized the name of such orbiter shall be selected from among suggestions submitted by students in elementary and secondary schools,” H.J.Res.559. For implementation, projects were reviewed by special panels set up by state education officials; state-level winners were selected from two divisions: kindergarten through sixth grade, and seventh grade through twelfth grade.

Years later, NASA instituted a year-long, worldwide competition for its first Mars rover, in which students under 19 years old were invited to select a heroine and submit an essay about her historical accomplishments. Valerie Ambroise, 12 years old, submitted the winning essay – about Sojourner Truth.

According to NASA,

JPL scientists and engineers from the Mars Pathfinder project and Planetary Society staff members reviewed 3,500 entries from all over the world, including essays from students living in Canada, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Poland, and Russia. Nearly 1,700 essays were submitted by 5- to 18-year-old students. JPL’s selection of winners from this group was based on several factors – the quality and creativity of the essay, considering the age of each contestant; the appropriateness of the name for a Mars rover; and the knowledge of the heroine and understanding of the Pathfinder rover's mission conveyed in the essay.

As Valerie wrote, Sojourner Truth made it her mission to “travel up and down the land,” advocating for “the rights of all people to be free and the rights of women to participate fully in society.” The name Sojourner was selected because it means “traveler”—a mission the pathfinding rover accomplished well.

NASA repeated this approach for its subsequent Martian rovers, known now as Spirit and Opportunity. Sofi Collis, in third grade, wrote the winning essay of the competition,

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.’

To name something is to, in a sense, be intimately involved in it. For the space community that often laments the public’s disinterest and noninvolvement, this is a special part of human nature that we would do well to tap into.

According to the NASA press release announcing the name, “Collis was born in Siberia. At age two, she was adopted by Laurie Collis and brought to the United States.” Sean O’Keefe, the NASA administrator at the time, said that “she has in her heritage and upbringing the soul of two great spacefaring countries… [o]ne of NASA's goals is to inspire the next generation of explorers. Sofi is a wonderful example of how that next generation also inspires us.”

Clara Ma, 12 years old, named the Curiosity rover. Explaining her recommendation, she wrote that,

Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder. Sure, there are many risks and dangers, but despite that, we still continue to wonder and dream and create and hope. We have discovered so much about the world, but still so little. We will never know everything there is to know, but with our burning curiosity, we have learned so much.

The Perseverance Rover was named by Alexander Mather, 13, who submitted the winning entry to the agency's ”Name the Rover" essay contest, which received 28,000 entries from K-12 students across every US state and territory. In his winning entry, he wrote that,

The human race will always persevere into the future. We as humans evolved as creatures who could learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh. We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation but as humans, will not give up.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, noted that “Alex’s entry captured the spirit of exploration […] like every exploration mission before, our rover is going to face challenges, and it’s going to make amazing discoveries. It’s already surmounted many obstacles to get us to the point where we are today – processing for launch. Alex and his classmates are the Artemis Generation, and they’re going to be taking the next steps into space that lead to Mars. That inspiring work will always require perseverance. We can’t wait to see that nameplate on Mars.”

Beyond simply an educational essay competition, the “Name the Rover” contest included a broader public component. Once the list of proposed names was narrowed to nine finalists, the public had five days to weigh in on their favorites, logging more than 770,000 votes online. The nine finalists also talked with a panel of experts, including Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division; NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins; rover driver Nick Wiltsie at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California; and the author of Curiosity’s name, Clara Ma.

And, in naming the Ingenuity helicopter, Vaneeza Rupani, an eleventh grader, suggested that,

Ingenuity would be a good name for the helicopter because that is exactly what it took to design this machine. The challenges faced trying to design something capable of flight on another planet can only be overcome with collaboration and creativity. It takes the ingenuity of an incredible group of people to create something with so many complex challenges.

Quite clearly, the “imagination of the youth” that Nace references shouldn’t be underestimated—nor taken for granted. Valerie Ambroise, Sofi Collis, Clara Ma, Alexander Mather, and Vaneeza Rupani developed naming proposals on par with the likes of Stephen Saliga, Clifford D. Cummings, Alex P. Nagy, and Walter Jacobowski. These students, in their own “small” way, made real, substantive, contributions to our story in space.

NASA already has a robust educational outreach program with significant reach. The agency steadily produces high-quality educational videos, reels, and advertising about the Artemis program and distributes material that teachers across the country incorporate into their curricula. An educational naming competition would then seemingly fit well into NASA’s current “Artemis Generation” messaging and programming. Certainly, it could help advance the education goals laid out by the White House’s “United States Space Priorities Framework,” the latest national-level strategic document for the country’s space enterprise. Per the framework’s guidance, “our STEM ecosystem of public and private organizations will leverage space programs to educate our children as part of improving the scientific literacy of Americans […].”

Like Faith wrote in his op-ed, “human nature suggests a solution,” one hinted at in Vaneeza’s reply to winning Ingenuity’s naming rights, which was originally her submission to the “Name the Rover” competition. Asked by NASA for her reaction when she “heard that the name you submitted for the rover would be used for the helicopter instead,” she wrote that she was “very, very excited. To have a name I suggested used in any capacity is amazing. This helicopter is an incredible project, and I am thrilled to have a part in its journey.”

As mentioned at the start of this piece, the action of naming is an innate part of the human experience—something understood even by the child naming their toys. To name something is to, in a sense, be intimately involved in it; to dictate how it is perceived from its genesis through its future. Whether for something as special as providing a namesake to a child, to as cliché as naming a favorite car, to as trite as participating in a viral online boat naming competition, people want to be involved. For the space community that often laments the public’s disinterest and noninvolvement, this is a special part of human nature that we would do well to tap into.

As proven in the past, a naming competition among our nation’s students would then seem to be “low hanging fruit” for NASA’s educational and inspirational goals, especially for a national effort as momentous as the Artemis program. This would be a unique opportunity for agency, educator, and student alike to broaden substantive involvement in our space program—taking it outside of the cleanroom and into the classroom, while sparking the imagination, interest, and legacy of contribution of our next generation of scientists, engineers, and explorers.

Mather Perseverance
One House proposal would have named the first launch of the Space Launch System after the late Gene Cernan. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Legislative history, a proposal, and concluding thoughts

If, at this point in the essay, the reader considers the proposal so intuitive (or, so foolish) that it has surely been considered at some point by the United States Congress, you would be correct. Alongside Rep. Lewis’s 1986 House Resolution to name Challenger’s replacement, there have been several legislative initiatives in recent years related to spacecraft names, in particular, that of the Space Launch System and its missions.

Whether one calls it “corporate responsibility” or “good publicity,” the commercial sector may come to find that educational competitions (or other opportunities) to name their vehicles could be a low-effort, low-cost means toward spreading awareness of their organization and mission while making an impact.

In 2017, Reps. John Culberson (R-TX), Lamar Smith (R-TX), and Robert Aderholt (R-AL) introduced a non-binding resolution, H.Con.Res.26, to “express the sense of Congress that the first launch of the Space Launch System should be named for Captain Eugene Andrew “Gene” Cernan,” who had died earlier that year. Speaking at the time, Rep. Culberson said that “the [SLS] represents an opportunity to forge forward with Captain Cernan’s vision to push the boundaries of human space exploration.” Their bill did not pass the Congress; Cernan was later honored as the namesake of the OA-8 Cygnus ISS resupply mission, launched in 2017.

Reporting on the resolution at the time, SpaceNews noted that it was unclear whether the Space Launch System name “was meant as anything more than a placeholder until NASA offered an alternative name. It draws parallels to the Space Transportation System, the formal name of the space shuttle program but one not widely used outside of the STS designation for shuttle missions.” Moreover, “while NASA has, in the past, suggested it might consider a naming contest to rename the SLS, it has not done so.”

To that point, two pieces of unpassed legislation in the 114th Congress authorized a naming competition much along the lines of this essay’s proposal. H.R. 2039, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017, included language that would direct NASA to “conduct a well-publicized competition among students in elementary and secondary schools to name the elements of the administration’s exploration program” including “the SLS, Orion spacecraft, and future missions.” According to a Spaceflight Now article published at the time of the bill’s introduction, “an identical section was included in a previous version of an authorization bill that passed the House in February”—in H.R. 810, the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2015”—and “NASA officials have had internal discussions of renaming the Space Launch System.”

Specifically, in both bills, Section 203, “Space Launch System,” contained the following straightforward legislative text:

“(f) NAMING COMPETITION.—Beginning not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act and concluding not later than 1 year after such date of enactment, the Administrator shall conduct a well-publicized competition among students in elementary and secondary schools to name the elements of the Administration’s exploration program, including—
(1) a name for the deep space human exploration program as a whole, which includes the Space Launch System, the Orion crew vehicle, and future missions; and
(2) a name for the Space Launch System.”

However, this language had fallen out of the legislative text by the time of the 115th Congress’ NASA “Transition Authorization Act of 2017,” which was signed into law. Nor was it or anything similar included in the standing authorization of NASA activities, which was wrapped into the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act. As leaders in both the Senate and the House of Representatives have expressed their desire for new comprehensive NASA authorization, there could be opportunity yet for a naming competition to be considered in upcoming legislative efforts.

Of course, the developments of the past several years have superseded portions of the aforementioned Section 203. NASA has now chosen the name for the deep space human exploration program, at least in the context of our current lunar efforts: Artemis, the sister of Apollo. Moreover, along with the Artemis Program, the agency is pursuing a robust robotic lunar exploration program through NASA-purchased, commercially-supplied, landers, rovers, and hoppers, the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Still, the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle remain—at least through the Artemis I mission—unnamed.

Taking into consideration the points raised earlier in this essay, I propose a simple rewriting of Section 203, readjusted and updated for our circumstances today. Here’s a rough legislative draft:

“SEC. [XXX] EDUCATIONAL NAMING COMPETITION FOR LUNAR EXPLORATION CAMPAIGN.—Beginning not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this act and continuing with each subsequent mission in the Artemis Program, the Administrator shall conduct a well-publicized educational competition among students in elementary, secondary, and trade schools, as well as other individuals at the Administrator’s discretion, to name the elements of the Administration’s lunar exploration campaign, including–
(1) a name for each Space Launch System rocket, Orion crew vehicle, or Human Landing System vehicle for the duration of its operation in a single Artemis Program mission; or
(2) a name for each Artemis Program mission as a whole; or
(3) in consultation with Commercial Lunar Payload Services commercial partners, a name for the mission of NASA payloads aboard individual Commercial Lunar Payload Services flights, when applicable.

As written, this text would offer NASA leadership the discretion and flexibility to choose which element of the Artemis program (and the agency’s broader lunar exploration campaign) they feel most fit and appropriate for a naming competition. The language does not prescribe the specific nature or topic of the competition, permitting the agency to tailor it to its desired STEM education focus and goals. In recognition of the important role the private sector will play in the Artemis architecture, especially through the delivery of payloads to the lunar surface via CLPS and the Human Landing System, it encourages NASA to consult and collaborate with its commercial partners to include the agency’s involvement in those commercial efforts within the possible scope of a naming competition.

Indeed, as the private sector continues to grow and mature its capabilities, it may find this opportunity compelling. As noted earlier, the operators of commercial spacecraft have taken to the practice of bestowing names of meaning to their vehicles; most recently, our first commercial craft destined for the Moon. Astrobotic’s “Peregrine” lunar lander was, according to the company, “aptly named to represent how Astrobotic has nimbly adapted to the many challenges and changing landscapes of the space sector”—presumably after the falcon known for its speed and agility. Intuitive Machines named its pioneering lander “Odysseus,” certainly after the eponymous voyaging hero of the Greek epic Odyssey.

Whether one calls it “corporate responsibility” or “good publicity,” the commercial sector may come to find that educational competitions (or other opportunities) to name their vehicles could be a low-effort, low-cost means toward spreading awareness of their organization and mission while making an impact. Similar such programs already exist in the sector, such as Blue Origin’s “Club for the Future,” which runs a “postcards to space” program; Virgin Galactic’s “Galactic Unite” initiatives; and Firefly Aerospace’s “DREAM program,” which donates excess launch capacity for educational payloads; among others. One could easily conceive of a “name the lander” program, for example, offered as a STEM initiative with partner educational institutions.

Whether by NASA or by a commercial entity, for the Artemis program or for otherwise, the act and art of naming our spacecraft has a storied history and very likely a rich future. While the circumstances and technologies of exploration into new frontiers have changed through the ages, this practice has not, a testament to its enduring human element. As we consider the names of our voyages of discovery moving forward, I recommend our community considers how to leverage this practice to humanize our story and connect with the broader public. Doing so would certainly be one of the easier efforts in our journey.

What’s in a name? Opportunity.


In the spirit of intellectual honesty, I would be remiss not to recognize that this proposal is not an assured solution and that challenges in exercises of public naming extend beyond just those mentioned earlier in this essay.

Two years after winning the essay competition to name the Sojourner rover, Valerie Ambroise suggested that she had “just named it. It doesn't mean I'm connected to it. Really, I don't feel connected to it at all.” In truth, she had already been researching Sojourner Truth for a civic oration contest when a teacher gave her the entry form for the contest. Part of the issue was the spotlight her contribution had created: “I guess I like momentary attention,” she said, but “don't like attention that's enduring.” Nonetheless, her trip to the Cape to watch the Sojourner launch—spoiled by bad weather and computer glitches—was not for naught. ''I got to see a 3D movie about the future of space exploration, and I got to see all those old rockets,” she said. Meanwhile, when asked whether she still thought of her accomplishment, Sofi Collis, who named Spirit and Opportunity, suggested not: “that’s old news.”

Certainly, no one initiative is an assured path to success. Yet, no initiative is an assured guarantee of the status quo.

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