Origins of Space-Related Names

(8 August 2011)


Origins of NASA Names (NASA SP-4402) Helen T Wells, Susan H. Whiteley and Carrie E. Karegeannes
Personal E-mail with friend of Clifford I. Cummings over correct form of name.

Launch Vehicles


When NASA was formed in 1958 it inherited from the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) the booster programs using combinations of Thor or Atlas boosters with Vanguard upper stages. The first of these upper-stage configurations was designated "Able." The name signified "A" or "first" (from military phonetic communications practice of stipulating key words beginning with each letter of the alphabet).


The Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) proposed to name the stage in 1958 for the star Agena in the constellation Centaurus because the rocket was an upper stage "igniting in the sky." Lockheed approved the choice of the name since it followed Lockheed's tradition of naming aircraft and missiles after stellar phenomena—such as the Constellation aircraft and Polaris intercontinental ballistic missile. ARPA formally approved the name in June 1959.


Early in 1951 Karel J. Bossart, head of the design team at Convair (Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation) that was working on the missile project for the Air Force, decided the project (officially listed as MX-1593) should have a popular name. He asked some of his staff for ideas and they considered several possibilities before agreeing upon "Atlas"—Bossart's own suggestion. The missile they were designing would be the biggest and most powerful yet devised. Bossart recalled that Atlas was the mighty god of ancient Greek mythology who supported the world on his powerful shoulders. The appropriateness of the name seemed confirmed by the fact that the parent company of Convair was the Atlas Corporation. The suggestion was submitted to the Air Force and was approved by the Department of Defense Research and Development Board's Committee on Guided Missiles in August 1951.

Big Joe

Attributed to Maxime A. Faget. Logical progression from the previously named Little Joe.


The stage was named in November 1958 when the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) awarded the initial contract for six research and development flight-test vehicles to Convair/Astronautics Division of General Dynamics Corporation. Krafft Ehricke of General Dynamics, who conceived the vehicle and directed its development, proposed the name and ARPA approved it. The name derived from the legendary Centaur, half man and half horse. The horse portion represented the "workhorse" Atlas, the "brawn" of the launch vehicle; the man represented the Centaur—which, containing the payload and guidance, was in effect the "brain" of the Atlas-Centaur combination. Eugene C. Keefer of Convair was credited with proposing the name to Ehricke.


When NASA was formed in 1958 it inherited from the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) the booster programs using combinations of Thor or Atlas boosters with Vanguard upper stages. The first of these upper-stage configurations was designated "Able." The Delta was similar to the previous Thor-based combinations and was a fourth—or "D"—version. Milton W. Rosen of NASA was responsible for the name. He had been referring to the combination as "Delta," which became the firm choice in January 1959 when a name was required because NASA was signing a contract for the booster.


Since Juno was the satellite-launch version of the Jupiter-C (Jupiter Composite Reentry Test Vehicle), the name Juno was suggested by Dr. William H. Pickering, JPL Director, in November 1957. (The ancient Roman goddess Juno, queen of the gods, was the sister and wife of Jupiter, king of the gods.) Army officials approved the proposal and the name was adopted.

Little Joe

As originally designed, Little Joe had four Pollux rocket motors fired two at a time—a pair of twos.
As Faget explains: “Since their first cross-section drawings showed four holes up, they called the project 'Little Joe,' from the crap game throw of a double deuce on the dice. . . . The appearance on engineering drawings of the four large stabilizing fins protruding from its airframe also helped to perpetuate the name Little Joe had acquired.”


Originally called Ursa and Major, the battlefield missile acquired it's final name – “Redstone” on 8 April 1952. It was named for Redstone Arsenal where it was developed. Likewise, the name of the Arsenal in turn referred to the rock and soil colors present at Huntsville, Alabama.


On October 1958, Dr. Wernher von Braun, the Director of ABMA's Development Operations Division, proposed the Juno V be renamed "Saturn," and on 3 February 1959 ARPA officially approved the name change. The name "Saturn" was significant for three reasons: the planet Saturn appeared brighter than a first-magnitude star, so the association of this name with such a powerful new booster seemed appropriate; Saturn was the next planet after Jupiter, so the progression was analogous to ABMA's progression from missile and space systems called "Jupiter"; and Saturn was the name of an ancient Roman god, so the name was in keeping with the U.S. military's custom of naming missiles after mythological gods and heroes.
Originally, the rockets were called Saturn C-1 and then later Saturn C-1B. In February 1963, they were renamed to Saturn I and Saturn IB respectively. There was a brief period from 9 June 1966 to December 1967 when Saturn IB was designated “Uprated Saturn I” before NASA returned to the previous designation.
The “Advanced Saturn” concept, also known as Saturn C-5 had several alternate names such as “Kronos” proposed for it, before NASA decided to stay within the precedent set by the earlier Saturn I and named it Saturn V in February 1963.


The name was chosen in mid-1958 by William E. Stoney, Jr as a parallel to “Explorer”. Each of Scout's four stages was named for a star:
     Stage 1: “Algol” - a star in the constellation Perseus.
     Stage 2: “Castor” - for the “tamer of the horses” in the constellation Gemini.
     Stage 3: “Antares” - for the brightest star in the constellation Scorpio.
     Stage 4: “Altair” - for a star in the constellation Aquila.


Named because it “tossed” the Echo 1 satellite payload above the earth's atmosphere like a shotput.


Derived from the ancient Norse god of thunder – “the strongest of Gods and men.”
It traces it's heritage back to Joe Rowland, Director of Public Relations at the Martin Company, who was assigned to suggest names for Martin's new intercontinental ballistic missile in preparation for a meeting at Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) Headquarters in 1955.
Of Rowland's list of proposed names, “Titan” was the one preferred by his colleagues, with “Thor” as second choice. At the ARDC meeting, the first-choice “Titan” was accepted as the appropriate name for the Martin Company's project.
At this point, Douglas, who was also attending the meeting realized that it had not prepared a name for it's missile.
Rowland, since he now had a firm lock on “Titan” for his company's missile, offered the alternate “Thor” to Douglas.
Donald Douglas, Jr. who was at the meeting along with his V.P. of Public Relations, agreed that it was an attractive name and in turn proposed it to ARDC officials who accepted it there.


The Titans were a race of giants who inhabited the earth before men were created. [see entry for Thor].


The name “Vanguard” applied to both the launcher and satellite. It was suggested by Milton W. Rosen's wife, Josephine. It was forwarded to the Chief of Naval Research who approved it on 16 September 1956. The word denoted that which is “out ahead, in the forefront.”



Abe Silverstein, Director of Space Flight Development, proposed the name “Apollo” because it was the name of a god in ancient Greek mythology with attractive connotations and the precedent for naming manned spaceflight projects for mythological gods and heroes had been set with Mercury. Apollo was god of archery, prophecy, poetry, and music, and most significantly he was god of the sun. In his horse-drawn golden chariot, Apollo pulled the sun in its course across the sky each day. NASA approved the name and publicly announced “Project Apollo” at the July 28-29 NASA/Industry Program Plans Conference in Washington D.C during 1960.


Originally began life as an “Advanced Mercury” concept that was designated “Mercury Mark II” by Glenn F. Bailey of the Space Task Group and John Y. Brown of the McDonnell company.
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.
"Gemini," meaning "twins" in Latin, was the name of the third constellation of the zodiac, made up of the twin stars Castor and Pollux. To Nagy it seemed an appropriate connotation for the two-man crew, a rendezvous mission, and the project's relationship to Mercury. Another connotation of the mythological twins was that they were considered to be the patron gods of voyagers.
The nomination was selected from several made in NASA Headquarters, including "Diana," "Valiant," and "Orpheus"from the Office of Manned Space Flight. On 3 January 1962, NASA announced the Mercury Mark II project had been named “Gemini.”


Mercury was traditionally depicted wearing a winged cap and winged shoes, Mercury was the messenger of the gods in ancient Roman and (as Hermes) Greek mythology. The symbolic associations of this name appealed to Abe Silverstein, NASA's Director of Space Flight Development, who suggested it for the manned spaceflight project in the autumn of 1958.
Robert R. Gilruth, head of the Space Task Group, proposed "Project Astronaut" to NASA Headquarters, but the suggestion lost out in favor of Project Mercury "largely because it [Project Astronaut] might lead to overemphasis on the personality of the man."
On 26 November 1958 Dr. T. Keith Glennan, NASA Administrator, and Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, Deputy Administrator, agreed upon "Mercury," and on 17 December 1958 Dr. Glennan announced the name for the first time.


The name "Skylab," a contraction connoting "laboratory in the sky," was suggested by Donald L. Steelman (USAF) while assigned to NASA. He later received a token reward for his suggestion. Although the name was proposed in mid-1968, NASA decided to postpone renaming the program because of budgetary considerations. "Skylab" was later referred to the NASA Project Designation Committee and was approved 17 February 1970.



In June 1969 NASA and the German Ministry for Scientific Research (BMwF) reached an agreement on a cooperative project that would orbit a German scientific satellite designed to investigate particle behavior in the earth's upper atmosphere. In early 1969 BMwF had named the proposed aeronomy satellite after Aeros, ancient Greek god of the air.


Alouette was a Canadian project in cooperation with NASA and was given its name in May 1961 by the Canadian Defence Research Board. The name was selected because, as the French-Canadian name for meadowlark, it suggested flight; the word "Alouette" was a popularly used and widely known Canadian title; and, in a bilingual country, it called attention to the French part of Canada's heritage. NASA supported the Board's choice of name for the topside sounder scientific satellite.


The world's first international satellite, Ariel 1 was a cooperative project between the United Kingdom and NASA. The satellite was named in February 1962 for the spirit of the air who was released by Prospero in Shakespeare's play The Tempest. The name "Ariel"—a traditional name in British aeronautics—was chosen by the U.K. Minister of Science and endorsed by NASA.


Joint US-German program to probe the inner radiation belt around Earth. Designated “Azur” – the German word for the color “Sky Blue” – in early 1968 by the BMwF.


Contraction of the phrase “Biological Satellite”. Used to conduct space experiments on living organisms such as plants and animals.


The word "echo" was often used in the radio and radar sense to describe the reflection of ground-transmitted signals from the surface of an orbiting balloon.


Joint US-French meteorological satellite. “Eole,” the French name for Aeolus, ancient Greek god of the winds was used.

ERTS – Earth Resources Technology Satellite

During development, several names were proposed as alternates to ERTS. Some were acronymic – ERS – Earth Resources Survey Satellite / EROS – Earth Resources Observation Satellite, while others were “traditional”, such as “Earth”, “Survey”, and “Ceres” —the ancient Greek goddess of the harvest. In the end it was decided to simply go back to the acronym.


Contraction of “Aeronautical Satellite”.


Contraction of “Meteorological Satellite”.


The name "Explorer," designating NASA's scientific satellite series, originated before NASA was formed. "Explorer" was used in the 1930s for the U.S. Army Air Service-National Geographic stratosphere balloons. On 31 January 1958, when the first U.S. satellite was orbited by the U.S. Army as a contribution to the International Geophysical Year (IGY), Secretary of the Army Wilbur M. Brucker announced the satellite's name, Explorer 1. The name indicated the mission of this first satellite and its NASA successors—to explore the unknown.
The Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) had previously rejected a list of explorer names for the satellite. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, responsible for the fourth stage of the Jupiter C rocket (configured as the Juno I launch vehicle) and for the satellite, had called the effort "Project Deal" (a loser in a poker game always called for a new deal—and this satellite was the answer to the Russian Sputnik). On the day of the launch, ABMA proposed the name "Top Kick," which was not considered appropriate. The list of names was brought out again. All the names on the list had been crossed out and only the heading "Explorers" remained. The late Richard Hirsch, a member of the National Security Council's Ad Hoc Committee for Outer Space, suggested that the first American satellite be called simply "Explorer." The name was accepted and announced.
When NASA was being formed in 1958 to conduct the U.S. civilian space program, responsibility for IGY scientific satellite programs was assigned to NASA. The decision was made by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to continue the name "Explorer" as a generic term for future NASA scientific satellites. Explorers were used by NASA to study (1) the atmosphere and ionosphere, (2) the magnetosphere and interplanetary space, (3) astronomical and astrophysical phenomena, and (4) the earth's shape, magnetic field, and surface.


Named for the meteorological term meaning "precipitating clouds" (from the Latin "rainstorm" or "cloud"). Name was suggested in late 1959 by Edgar M. Cortright, Chief of NASA's Advanced Technology Programs, who directed the formation of NASA's meteorological satellite programs.


The outstanding feature of the Pegasus satellites was their huge winglike panels, 96 meters tip to tip, sweeping through space to determine the rate of meteoroid penetrations. The program office said when choosing from proposed names that the spacecraft, to be the heaviest yet orbited, would be "somewhat of a 'horse' as far as payloads are concerned" and there could be "only one name for a horse with wings"—Pegasus, the name of the winged flying horse of ancient Greek mythology.
The original suggestion for the name had come from an employee of the spacecraft contractor, Fairchild Stratos Corporation. The contractor, with the concurrence of the NASA Office of Space Vehicle Research and Technology and Marshall Space Flight Center, had held an in-house competition in 1963 to select a name for the project. From more than 100 suggestions by Fairchild Stratos employees, the NASA program office recommended the name "Pegasus" to the Project Designation Committee. The Committee approved the selection in July 1964 and NASA announced the name in August.


NASA's medium-altitude, active-repeater communications satellite was formally named "Relay" in January 1961 at the suggestion of Abe Silverstein, NASA's Director of Space Flight Programs. The name was considered appropriate because it literally described the function of an active-repeater comsat: the satellite received a signal, amplified it within the satellite, and then relayed the signal back toward the earth

San Marco

Joint US-Italian satellite. Named for "San Marco" (Saint Mark) who is the patron saint of Venice and the patron saint of all who sail the sea.


Acronym for "Space Plasma High Voltage Interaction Experiment."


Franco-German satellite. In 1967 France had a stationary (synchronous) orbit communications satellite, SAROS (Satellite de Radiodiffusion pour Orbit Stationnaire), in the design stage and West Germany was about to begin designing its Olympia satellite. The two nations agreed in June 1967 to combine their programs in a new joint effort. Participants in the 1967 discussions in Bonn—the Federal Republic of Germany's capital on the Rhine River—sought a new name for the joint satellite just before the agreement was signed. Gerard Dieulot, technical director of the French program, was reminded of the German composer Robert Schumann by the name of French Minister Maurice Schumann, negotiator for France. The new accord in the Rhine Valley, Dieulot suggested, was a "symphony by Schumann." "Symphonie," the French spelling of the word coming originally from the Latin and Greek "symphonia," "harmony" or "agreement," was adopted when the Franco-German satellite agreement was signed in June.


Contraction of "synchronous communications" for communications satellites in synchronous earth orbit. The name was devised by Alton E. Jones of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Early in August 1961, when he was working on the preliminary project development plan, he decided that a name was required before the plan could go to press the next day. He invented the name "Syncom." Before the end of August, NASA Headquarters officials had approved the preliminary plan and NASA had issued a press release using the name.


Contraction of “Telecommunications Satellite”


Contraction of "telecommunications" and "star”.


Combination of “Western Union” with “Star”. Used by Western Union Telegraph Company's satellites.

Space Probes

Generalized Probe Notes:

On 20 September 1952 a paper entitled "The Martian Probe," presented by E. Burgess and C. A. Cross to the British Interplanetary Society, gave the term "probe" to the English language.
In May 1960—at the suggestion of Edgar M. Cortright, Assistant Director of Lunar and Planetary Programs—NASA adopted a system of naming its space probes.
Names of lunar probes were patterned after land exploration activities (the name "Pioneer," designating the early series of lunar and related space probes, was already in use).
The names of planetary mission probes were patterned after nautical terms, to convey "the impression of travel to great distances and remote lands."
Isolated missions to investigate the space environment were "assigned the name of the mission group of which they are most nearly a part." This 1960 decision was the basis for naming Mariner, Ranger, Surveyor, and Viking probes.


Interplanetary/Solar probes by West Germany and NASA. Would pass closer than any previous spacecraft to the Sun. Named "Helios," the name of the ancient Greek god of the sun, by German Minister Karl Kaesmeier. The name had been suggested in a telephone conversation between Minister Kaesmeier and Goddard Space Flight Center's Project Manager, Gilbert W. Ousley, in August 1968.

Lunar Orbiter

Literal description of the mission assigned to each probe in that project: to attain lunar orbit, whence it would acquire photographic and scientific data about the moon.
The name evolved informally through general use. NASA had had under consideration plans for a Surveyor spacecraft to be placed in orbit around the moon. This Surveyor was called "Surveyor Orbiter" to distinguish it from those in the lunar-landing series. When the decision was made to build a separate spacecraft rather than use Surveyor, the new probe was referred to simply as "Orbiter" or "Lunar Orbiter."


The space probes to investigate the vicinities of the earth's planetary neighbors, Venus and Mars, and eventually Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn, were designated the "Mariner" series. The name was adopted in May 1960 as part of the Cortright system of naming planetary missions from nautical terms.


Credit for naming the first probe has been 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.' "


A probe series to gather data about the moon, Ranger was assigned its name in May 1960 because of the parallel to "land exploration activities." NASA had initiated Project Ranger—then unnamed—in December 1959, when it requested Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to study spacecraft design and a mission to "acquire and transmit a number of images of the lunar surface." In February 1960 Dr. William H. Pickering, JPL Director, recommended that NASA Headquarters approve the name "Ranger" used by JPL for the project. The name had been introduced by the JPL program director, Clifford I. 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.


"Surveyor" was chosen in May 1960 to designate an advanced spacecraft series to explore and analyze the moon's surface. The designation was in keeping with the policy of naming lunar probes after "land exploration activities" established under the Cortright system of naming space probes.


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.

Sounding Rockets

Notes: The term "sounding rocket" derived from the analogy to maritime soundings made of the ocean depths.

Aerobee / Astrobee

Development of the Aerobee liquid-propellant sounding rocket was begun in 1946 by the Aerojet Engineering Corporation (later Aerojet-General Corporation) under contract to the U.S. Navy. The Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Johns Hopkins University was assigned technical direction of the project.
James A. Van Allen, then Director of the project at APL, proposed the name "Aerobee." He took the "Aero" from Aerojet Engineering and the "bee" from Bumblebee, the name of the overall project to develop naval rockets that APL was monitoring for the Navy.
In 1952, at the request of the Air Force and the Navy, Aerojet undertook design and development of the Aerobee-Hi, a high-performance version of the Aerobee designed expressly for research in the upper atmosphere. An improved Aerobee-Hi became the Aerobee 150. The uprated Aerobee 150 was named "Astrobee." Aerojet used the prefix "Aero" to designate liquid-propellant sounding rockets and "Astro" for its solid-fueled rockets.


The name "Apache," from the name of the American Indian tribe, followed Thiokol Chemical Corporation (later Thiokol Corporation) tradition of giving Thiokol-developed stages Indian-related names, which had begun with Cajun.


Arcas was named in 1959 by its producer, Atlantic Research Corporation. The name was an acronym for "All-purpose Rocket for Collecting Atmospheric Soundings." It was intentional that the first three letters, "A-R-C," also were the initials of the Atlantic Research Corporation.


"Argo" was from the name of Jason's ship in the ancient Greek myth of Jason's travels in search of the Golden Fleece. The first sounding rocket in this series, developed by the Aerolab Company (later a division of Atlantic Research Corporation), was called "Jason." Subsequent vehicles in the series were given names also beginning with the letter "J": The Argo D-4 and Argo D-8 were named "Javelin" and "Journeyman."


Sounding rocket using surplus Minuteman Second stages. When the project was first conceived, the new vehicle was called "Fat Albert" after the television cartoon character, because its short, fat appearance contrasted with that of other rockets. The Naval Research Laboratory asked Robert D. Arritt of its Space Science Division to choose a more dignified name. Arritt and a group of his colleagues chose "Aries"; it was the name of a constellation (the rocket would be used for astronomy projects) and it was "a name that was available." It also was Arritt's zodiac sign.


Acronym for "Atmospheric Sounding Projectile."

Black Brant

The Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment (CARDE) selected the name "Black Brant" for the research rocket, taking the name of a small, dark, fast-flying goose common to the northwest coast and Arctic regions of Canada. The Canadian government kept the name with the addition of numbers (I through VI by 1974) for different members of the series—rather than giving a code name to each version—to emphasize that they were sounding rockets rather than weapons.


The project's manager, Joseph G. Thibodaux, Jr., formerly of Louisiana, suggested the new motor be named "Cajun" because of the term's Louisiana associations. It was the name of persons in that region reputed to be of mixed Acadian French and Indian or Negro blood. Allen E. Williams, Director of Engineering in Thiokol Chemical Corporation's Elkton (Md.) Division, agreed to the name, and later the Elkton Division decided to continue giving its rocket motors Indian-related names.


Named for the Alaskan Eskimo people by the contractor, Thiokol Corporation, in Thiokol's tradition of using Indian-related names.


Named by Thiokol Corporation for the Indian weapon, in Thiokol's tradition of giving its motors Indian-related names.