NASA and the rules for naming its spacecraft

For this new Space Legal Issues article, let us have a look at NASA and the rules for naming its spacecraft.

Mercury, Apollo, Ares, Artemis… are the names of NASA’s most famous spaceships, spacecraft and large-scale missions. Each of them is as firmly associated with the history of space exploration as with its first owners, the gods of Greek and Roman mythology. The names of the gods were the first NASA missions, which set some tradition of linking space missions to mythological sources. But recently, NASA has begun to name after the open competition among children and students. And in 2018, the first spacecraft was given the name of a living person. So, is there a NASA concept or project naming system? Who invents and assigns names to spacecraft?


NASA’s first mission was called the “Mercury Project” in honor of the Messenger of the Gods at the suggestion of Glenn Silverstein, NASA’s Director of Space Flight Programs in the 1950s. As some sources note, this was a tribute to the American tradition of calling rockets the mythological names of characters in Greek and Roman mythology (Thor, Atlas, Centaur and Saturn). And those, in turn, were associated with the Nike, Ajax and Hercules military missile programs. There is no official version to justify the name of the first NASA space program and the other options considered, but it was Mercury who started the whole chain of projects with mythological names.

Silverstein also became the author of the name of the Lunar mission “Apollo”. NASA’s historical record states that he chose this name one evening in 1958 while reading a book on mythology. Inspired by the image of the deity, he allegedly noted that the figure of Apollo on a chariot pulling the Sun along the sky corresponds to the scale and ambitions of the program. It is noteworthy that in ancient times, the planet Mercury in the morning sky was called Apollo.

Since then, the names of the ancient Roman and Greek gods were assigned to dozens of programs. One of the new large-scale projects is Artemis, a program to return people to the Moon, launched in May 2019. The name is very symbolic, because Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo, whose name was called the first lunar mission of the USA. In addition, the choice of the goddess is associated with the intention to land the first female astronaut on the Moon in 2024. This time, the goals of the Artemis Moon return mission are to create the first Moon base for the subsequent development of Mars.


Despite all the romanticization of spaceship names, the naming process at NASA has its own rules, which are enshrined in a corresponding document. The first protocol was developed by a special committee on projects in 1960. At the first workshops, the committee attempted to establish a specific naming scheme and procedure for mission categories. The committee emphasized that flight names should be tied to the mission and have a serial number. A year later, the basic principles of NASA’s spacecraft naming were approved:

  • The name of the project should be a simple euphonic word;
  • The name should not be duplicated and confused with other projects of NASA and not NASA;
  • Names should reflect the mission of the project whenever possible;
  • Names can be serialized (only after a successful flight or achievement).

During the work of the committee, many names were selected and reserved, most of them were never used, since the projects themselves were revised or completely cancelled. Many NASA projects began to bear simply technical names. And after two years, the structure was abolished as unnecessary. In 2000, NASA adopted a new Policy Directive on “Official names for Major NASA Projects”. The following are indicated as basic principles:

  • Project names will be simple and easily to pronounce;
  • Names will not be duplicate or be so similar to other names that they create confusion;
  • Project names will be serialized (when appropriate), including Arabic numbers;
  • Acronyms are to be avoided in selecting names except where the acronym is descriptive and easily pronounced;
  • Names will be printed with only the initial letter capitalized.

The name selection process itself is a rather bureaucratic regulation with responsible persons, who are also enshrined in the NASA directive. The key figure in this procedure is the Deputy Associate Administrator for Office of Communications. He reviews the recommendations of the ad hoc committee, makes a selection and submits to the Administrator for final approval, and then makes a public announcement of the program name.


As we understood, one of the main criteria for the name in NASA is laconicism. But given the number of tests, flights, and program stages, “call signs” and numbers for numbering spacecraft and modules come to the rescue of official names. The right to choose a name for NASA’s manned spacecraft was granted directly to astronauts. During the Mercury program, Alan B. Shepard Jr. assigned for the flight, chose the call sign “Freedom 7” for his ship, the figure is associated with a team of seven astronauts and the numbering of the capsule and launch vehicle. And the second manned ship was called the “Liberty Bell 7”.

In the subsequent Apollo program, the tradition continued and each astronaut chose code names for the command and service module. So the names were invented: Gumdrop and Spider (Apollo 9); Charlie Brown and Snoopy (Apollo 10); Columbia and Eagle (Apollo 11) and others. One of the turning points was the Gemini mission, when astronauts Virgil Grissom and John Young named their ship “Molly Brown” from the musical comedy of the same name. And after the third Gemini mission, NASA announced that “all Gemini flights should use one easily remembered and pronounced name as the official nomenclature of spacecraft”.

That is, if a program or mission is designated by one proper name, then to designate ships and to avoid confusion during communication, more complex names with abbreviations and numbers are used. For example, in the Apollo 11 mission, the launch vehicle was called Saturn 5, which launched into space two ships that bore the names that were symbolic and patriotic for the United States of America. The command module in orbit was named “Colombia” (the name of the Statue of Liberty), and the lunar module for landing “Eagle” (as a symbol for the United States of America). The Arabic numerals in the names are justified by NASA’s fears that the Roman ones may not be understandable to all nations.


The new Space Shuttle spacecraft concept has set a new naming trend for NASA. A precedent was set in preparation for the launch of the first shuttle, a reusable spacecraft, which was designed to transport astronauts and cargo into low Earth orbit (LEO). The original working title of the first Space Shuttle was “Constitution”. For greater symbolism, they planned to launch it on 1976 Constitution Day. However, new players appeared in the story – fans of the TV series “Star Trek” launched a campaign demanding to name the “Enterprise” in honor of a fictional starship. They collected nearly one hundred thousand signatures and wrote letters to President Gerald Ford. A couple of weeks before the launch of the first shuttle, Ford vetoed the officially proposed name and stated that it was “a little partial to the name Enterprise”. He justified this by serving on the same ship of the U.S. Navy, and also that the space shuttle opens a new historical page in the history of space exploration and therefore it would be a mistake to call it the Constitution.

Subsequent shuttles were named Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor. In this chain of names, another thematic consistency is traced; they are called the iconic sea ships. For example, the Discovery is named after two ships under the command of the great explorers Henry Hudson and James Cook. The shuttle Columbia is named after the “Columbia Rediviva”, the first boat to circumnavigate the world. And the shuttle Atlantis is connected with the first American ship for oceanographic research.


In 1994, NASA launched a new tradition with spacecraft names. The first American Mars rover was named after an open competition among schoolchildren and students, which was announced three thousand and five hundred options. Participants had to offer the heroine and justify in an essay how her name could translate the heroine’s achievements to the Martian environment. The winner-name “Sojourner” was proposed by 12-year-old Valeria Ambroise, in honor of an African American women’s human rights defender. Also the literal meaning of this pseudonym is “traveler”. So, on the 30th anniversary of the robotic research of Mars, NASA announced the name “Sojourner” for the first research robot on the red planet Mars Pathfinder.

The competitive approach was also fixed in the name of other NASA rovers: “Spirit”, “Opportunity”, “Curiosity”. All of these names were suggested by the children. In November 2019, NASA completed another contest among schoolchildren in the name of the rover. The new robot scientist is still conventionally called “Mars 2020”.

The organizers themselves explain this as “part of a public engagement campaign to highlight NASA’s missions from the Moon to Mars”. Initially, such contests were intended to interest young minds in the subject of space exploration and to expand research potential. But later, NASA came to understand that this is a great method of image promotion. And along with the competition for the Mars 2020 rover, NASA launched the Send Your Name to Mars campaign so that anyone can send their name, which will be printed on a silicon carrier and attached to the rover. One of the participants in the action was the Hollywood actor Brad Pitt, to whom NASA issued a registered boarding pass to Mars.


Concerning NASA and the rules for naming its spacecraft, this honor was awarded to physicist Eugene Parker, who first issued the theory of the solar wind, a constant outflow of particles and magnetic fields on the Sun. His name is given to a solar probe launched from Canaveral station on August 12, 2018, in the presence of his 91-year-old namesake. The spaceship contains four sets of scientific instruments for collecting data on solar radio emission, magnetic fields, plasma and structures in the hot external atmosphere of the Sun. As a sign of respect, NASA secured Dr. Parker’s photographs on his probe and his groundbreaking article on the solar wind, which excited the scientific community in 1958.


So, having examined the history of the name of NASA’s iconic programs, three sources can be noted:

  • NASA proposal developed internally and proposed by a special committee;
  • Suggestions of astronauts in manned missions;
  • Essay-based student competition.

Concerning NASA and the rules for naming its spacecraft, NASA’s originality was followed by the European Space Agency (ESA), Chinese and Japanese corporations that also use mythological names in the name of spacecraft and vehicles. Other key players in space research – Russia and China – have a slightly different policy. The first Soviet spacecraft bears the simple, uncomplicated name “Sputnik”. Subsequently, the U.S.S.R. used the names “Sunrise”, “East”, “Peace” and “Salute” – these names are also quite concise, but unlike NASA, they are not romanticized. And then went the dry names for the research object “Moon” and “Mars” with digital additions. The names of the Chinese ships reflect the communist system of the country, “The Aleut East” and “The Great Campaign”.

It is noteworthy that the current Directive “Official Names for Major NASA Projects” expires on February 14, 2020. Therefore, in the policy of naming spaceships, new changes will probably be introduced. But one thing is clear: all the names of NASA’s spacecraft are symbolic, recognizable enough and carry a charged positive meaning. These names lead the attention of earthlings beyond the horizons of our planet and light the eyes of millions of children. This is what can be said concerning NASA and the rules for naming its spacecraft.

This article was written by Svetlana SAMOILOVA (Paris-Saclay).