Let’s say you spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars building a spacecraft. Once you put that last rivet into it, you step back and behold your vessel to the stars, and then it hits you: you still have to name the thing. It’s not enough to call it Spaceship One and call it a day; you need to be creative and come up with something that rouses the human spirit. Here are four such spacecraft, and how they were named.
During the 1960’s and 70’s, in various essays Arthur C. Clarke proposed three laws of scientific progress. They are:
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
When he wrote these laws, he may as well have had entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk in mind. ClearanceJobs has previously covered Musk, who is the founder of Tesla, SpaceX, and PayPal. He’s the real life version of Tony Stark, and his hobbies include turning industries on their heads, and transforming vast swaths of the human experience. When Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, he was told his goal of private commercial cargo flights to orbit was impossible to achieve. Such missions, he was told, were too hard, too dangerous, and too expensive, in a sector too entrenched and competitive. Musk, who now seems almost certain to revolutionize the automotive and energy sectors as well, didn’t worry too much about the naysayers. In the end, his spacecraft, Dragon, accomplished all of his goals, and became the first private vessel to dock with the International Space Station.
Living in the information society as we do, it’s easy to state or read a simple fact like that, and just kind of move on. But really consider it for a moment. A man basically looked at the sky and said, “There is a space station up there. I will build a ship, send it into orbit, and dock with that space station.” It really does seem crazy, and yet the last three years have now seen regular trips by Dragon (on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets) to the ISS. In fact, overcoming the doubtful, rational mind is where the name “Dragon” came from: the song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” whose lyrics tell the story of the loss of childlike imagination.
The name “Enterprise” has a pretty impressive historical record. It was the name of the sailing ship used to found and settle Melbourne, Australia, which is today that continent’s second-largest city. It was the name of any number of frigates, sloops, and cruisers in the British Navy from 1705 through today. In the United States, it has been the name of schooners, sloops-of-war, and aircraft carriers. (The latest USS Enterprise, CVN-80, is slated to begin operations in 2025.) And of course, it is the name of the most famous star ship in science fiction, captained most famously by James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard.
It’s also the name of the first space shuttle. Set to be unveiled on Constitution Day in 1976, the vessel was intended to be named Constitution. Fans of the television series Star Trek had a different idea, and they hatched a plan to have the first of this thrilling new class of vessel named after the star ship Enterprise. In those pre-Internet days, science fiction newsletters helped spread the message and mobilize fans, and the same kind of letter writing campaign that saved the show from cancellation years earlier now helped flood the White House with requests for a better name than Constitution. When it came time to unveil the shuttle, Gerald Ford sent a message to NASA’s administrator. “I’m a little partial to the name Enterprise.” The vessel was so named.
Okay, sometimes it’s acceptable to forget about the cutesy names and all this fruity nonsense about roused human spirits. You weren’t a humanities major, dammit. You’re an engineer. You build things that work. Leave the inspirational naming conventions to the MFA graduates serving you coffee at Starbucks. It’s a spaceship. It’s your company’s first one. SpaceShipOne will just have to do.
Not just anyone can get away with that, but Burt Rutan isn’t just anyone. He is the founder of Scaled Composites and Mojave Aerospace Ventures, and he’s good at designing planes. Really good. Hanging in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum are not one—not two—but five aircraft designed by Rutan. Once you’re the best in the world at doing something, what do you do next? You become the best in every world, and set your eyes on the stars. Among SpaceShipOne’s accomplishments (aside from winning the Ansari X-Prize, and becoming the first reusable, commercial spacecraft): it is the first commercial aircraft to exceed an altitude of 100 kilometers; it is the first to break Mach 2; and Mach 3. In a supreme show of style, it made its first supersonic flight on December 17, 2003—the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.
Technically GL-10 isn’t a spacecraft, though it was designed by NASA, an organization that knows a thing or two about space exploration. Greased Lightning is a drone unlike any other in the nation’s fleet. It is half-plane and half-helicopter, designed for vertical takeoff and landing. Its name refers to its speedy and stealthy capabilities. The design allows it to go airborne without the assistance of additional ground or air hardware. In its helicopter cruise mode, it is expected to be four times as efficient as traditional helicopters. It’s also quiet. Though it uses 10 propellers and has a 10-foot wingspan, the drone is “quieter than a neighbor mowing the lawn with a gas-powered motor,” said Bill Fredericks, one of its engineers.
Drones are a promising area for NASA. In addition to its Earth-based mission of science research, which Greased Lightning serves, researchers are looking for ways to employ unmanned aerial systems over Mars, Venus, and other celestial bodies.