NASA Knows the Importance of a Name

NASA's named its next generation of rockets to launch humans into space "ARES," after the Greek god of war. NPR's Debbie Elliott talks with former NASA historian Roger Launius to find out what's in a name.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

As NASA was getting space shuttle Discovery ready for what turned out to be a no-go today, it announced the name of the next generation of rockets that will launch humans into space. They'll be called Ares. That's the Greek god of war whom the Romans called Mars.

NASA's Scott Horowitz said the agency picked Ares from a list of hundreds of names.

Mr. SCOTT HOROWITZ (NASA): All the constellations in the sky. All the Greek and Roman gods. I mean, all their children. I mean, you know, the cousins. I mean it went on and on and on. There were a lot of names.

ELLIOTT: For some insight into how NASA might choose Ares, say, over Hespia - she's Zeus' sister, by the way - we turn to Roger Launius, the chairman of the space history division at the Smithsonian Institution and a former chief historian for NASA.

Thanks for coming in.

Mr. ROGER LAUNIUS (Space History Division, Smithsonian): Thank you.

ELLIOTT: So tell me. What do you think of Ares?

Mr. LAUNIUS: It's a nice name, yeah. There's no question about that. It's a bit lyrical. It's a bit playful. And it is in keeping with the earlier names that NASA's used for its various projects, which are also in the same category.

ELLIOTT: So explains to us how this works. Is there some sort of a process NASA goes through to pick these names?

Mr. LAUNIUS: It's not a formal process. But very early on they determined it was important to come up with names that captured some sense of what they were doing and had a certain lyrical quality and a certain popularity. Project Mercury is the first example of this. That's the first human space flight program back in the late 1950s, just after NASA was created. They came up with this in actually November of 1958, after considering a whole bunch of names, including some that were acronyms, like Project MISS, which stood for Man In Space Soonest, M-I-S-S. Bad name, nobody really liked it, it didn't go very far.

Mercury was one of them that kind of resonated. It sounded good and the individual who was charged with human space flight program for NASA at the time, a fellow named Abe Silverstein, was really responsible for choosing that name after considering a bunch of other suggestions.

ELLIOTT: So do people at NASA all make suggestions for names, and then one person has the final say?

Mr. LAUNIUS: Typically what happens is that the project manager, whoever that person might be, will ask people on his staff to come up with some names. Sometimes they'll broaden that and make it an opportunity for everybody that works at NASA to participate. And sometimes they do it publicly. They announce, hey, we're going to run a contest, essentially.

ELLIOTT: Is there a name that has come from the public?

Mr. LAUNIUS: Absolutely. The best example of that is during the shuttle program. The first orbiter built, which was going to be called constellation for a time, there was letter writing campaign organized by the fans of Star Trek, who thought that...

ELLIOTT: Oh...

Mr. LAUNIUS: ...it needed to be named Enterprise after the Starship Enterprise. And it was. There was enough excitement about that that the NASA administrator at the time, a man by the name of James Fletcher, said, Ah, not a bad idea, let's do that. And at the rollout ceremony for Enterprise - which isn't a flight vehicle, it was used for tests - they had the cast of Star Trek present.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAUNIUS: And I'm sure people were there in some of their uniforms. And they rolled it out and christened it the Enterprise.

ELLIOTT: The naming process seems to be an important part of the public relations arm of NASA. Why is it important that a name can convey something to the public?

Mr. LAUNIUS: Well, names are significant in every setting. If you don't have a good name for a product, I can guarantee you you won't sell it well. NASA understands that very clearly, that you have to put a human face on the activities. In the case of human space flight, you put astronauts out in front of the public. You have to have a catchy name or term that will enable to communicate quickly what this is about. And NASA understands that, and understand it since they were first created.

ELLIOTT: Roger Launius is the chairman of the Space History Division at the Smithsonian Institution.

Thanks for being here.

Mr. LAUNIUS: My pleasure.

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