'Sexy' Spacecraft Names Would Inspire

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NASA launched a science mission to the moon last week with the forgettable name GRAIL, for Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory. I kept wondering if the engineers could have added the acronym HOLY. Say, for High Orbiting Lunar Year. A spacecraft called HOLY GRAIL might get public attention, especially among Monty Python fans.

This may sound nit-picky to space enthusiasts, but political blogger Jeff Brooks, in a commentary posted in The Space Review, writes: “Rather than evoke the wonder and excitement of exploration or a sense of national pride, these spacecraft names seem designed to elicit a chorus of yawns.”

An evocative name for a space endeavor will not only get public interest but also be inspirational and memorable too. And this can’t help but garner support.

Brooks points out that in the early days of the Space Race pioneering missions had equally pioneering names: Ranger, Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and of course, Pioneer.

Some of the more recent space probe names have gotten mushy: New Horizons (Pluto flyby), and Dawn (asteroid orbiter).

Mushier still are Mars rover names: Spirit, Opportunity and… Curiosity. One of the most confusing headlines I’ve read was “NASA Builds Parachute for Curiosity.”

PHOTOS: When Discovery News Met Mars Rover ‘Curiosity’

NASA named all these rovers in national student competitions, but when I talk to middle school classes I typically get much more exciting names from the students. My favorite: Red Rover.

I personally would like to have seen these little Wall-E-type Mars robots anthropomorphized. NASA could have had endless fun with the twin Mars Exploration Rovers that landed on the Red Planet in 2004.

How about famous pop culture couples like Thelma & Louise, Bert & Ernie, Smoky & The Bandit, or Terrance & Phillip (for “South Park” fans).

On the other hand, names gushing with superlatives will backfire in Congress because they sound grandiose and therefore expensive. Hubble Space Telescope’s canceled predecessor was called the Large Space Telescope. Voyager’s canceled predecessor was the Grand Tour Mission. Worst of all was the Superconducting Super Collider, which is now just a hole in the ground near Waco, Texas following cancellation.

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Not shy about superlatives, the European Southern Observatory had on the drawing boards a football field sized telescope called OWL for Overwhelmingly Large Telescope. (They have since cut the size down to a design called the European Extremely Large Telescope.)

The only NASA flying observatory that had a recognizable scientist’s name was a 1970s X-ray space telescope officially called HEAO-2 (High Energy Astrophysics Observatory). Without NASA’s approval principal investigator Riccardo Giacconi called it Einstein. The name stuck.

NASA followed suit by quickly naming the Great Observatories (before the principal investigators could nickname them) after famous scientists who are largely unheard of by the public: Fermi, Chandrasekhar, Spitzer, and Compton.

At first I wasn’t thrilled about the name “Hubble” for a space telescope. It rhymes with “trouble.” But the celebrated telescope’s accomplishes, dazzling photos, and comback from near technical disaster made it famous despite the name.

Today, the name Hubble has become synonymous with telescope. But few folks probably realize that the famous observatory was named after the early 20th century astronomer Edwin Hubble.

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Frankly, the most attention getting name for a future space telescope would be Hubble II. It would immediately tickle the imagination. And why not? Hollywood traditionally keeps names of blockbuster movies in their sequels: “Terminator 2,” “Die Hard 3,” and “Rocky IV.” Or, in keeping with Hollywood titles, give a future space telescope a more generic but sexy name like Cosmic Eye, or Life Finder.

A little more Madison Avenue thinking would go a long way with the public. Just think of such adventurous car names as: Thunderbird, Mustang, Infiniti, Stingray, Bronco, Safari, Odyssey, and Trailblazer.

Probably the biggest commercial flop of a car was the Ford Edsel. The name was partly to blame for its demise (it was the name of Henry Ford’s son). Consumers said it sounded like weasel. At least Ford didn’t go with one of several unorthodox names proposed by an avant-garde poet: Utopian Turtletop, Pastelogram, or Mongoose Civique.

WIDE ANGLE: Project Icarus: Reaching for Interstellar Space

In terms of bolstering popular support, inspirational branding is not lost in the U.S. military. Weapons systems are given virile or patriotic names: Hellfire, Tomahawk, Predator, Minuteman, Peacekeeper, Raptor, Marauder, Kingcobra, Hellcat, and even Patriot. And, military actions are made to sound inspiring: Operation Overlord, Rolling Thunder, Desert Storm, Noble Eagle, and Enduring Freedom.

NASA’s newly announced Advanced Launch System (which looks like the “love child” between the Saturn V and Space Shuttle, according veteran to science reporter Miles O’Brien), needs a brawny name. How about Zeus?

Brooks point out that when James Cook explored the South Pacific in the late 18th century he named his ships Endeavour, Adventure, Resolution, and Discovery. The expeditions caught the imagination of the British public. “I doubt the British public would have followed his expeditions quite so closely if his ships had had names like Venus Transit Survey Vessel or Island Locator Made Of Wood,” he writes.

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