Space missions: What’s in a name?

Sean BlairSean Blair
  24 March 2017

First Sentinel design by original co-creator and artist, Jack Kirby. Credit: Marvel

There’s a brand new Sentinel! The steady growth in numbers of Europe’s flotilla of environmental-monitoring satellites can only sound like good news, right? Unless you’re an X-men fan, maybe.

Followers of the 60-year Marvel comics mutant saga are familiar with the Sentinels as homicidal mutant-detecting giant robots, originally devised by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1965. In the comics, these three-storey tall highly-adaptable mechanoids were developed by the US government to counter the perceived threat of super-powered humans, given to making short but declarative remarks like: ‘TARGETS IDENTIFIED. MUTANTS. SURRENDER OR DIE.’ They made it to the silver screen in the $ 747 million grossing X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014, when they take control of the entire planet and the last remnants of the X-Men must go back in time to shift the timeline Terminator-style to save the world.

So does this mean there’s some secret anti-X-men cadre in the higher echelons of ESA and the European Commission, responsible for the real-life Sentinels as part of Europe’s Copernicus programme?

Not really – the naming comes down to the fact that whether for pop culture and the space programme, there are only so many monikers to go around. The Sentinels title was inspired by a book called Les sentinelles de la terre, which sketched out an operational follow-on for the then current Envisat mission (that name incidentally, derived from a humble contraction of ‘Environmental Satellite’).

This is not the Skynet satellite view you were looking for. (It’s the Terminator’s, in fact). Credit: Terminator Wiki

Probably the biggest unintentional overlap of names between actual space and sci-fi is the Skynet series of comsats operated by the UK Ministry of Defence, which share their name with the malevolent defence computer network in the aforementioned Terminator series of movies. Skynet destroys the world, once again requiring time travel (and lots and lots of time paradoxes) to save the day – there are only supposed to be seven basic plots, after all. The actual Skynet satellite came first however: the very first in the series was launched back in 1969, when Terminator director James Cameron was still in high school.

One set of space hardware was intentionally named after a sci-fi inspiration: SpaceX’s Elon Musk named his Falcon series of rockets after the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s space freighter in Star Wars. Musk’s Dragon capsules, meanwhile, owe their name to the 1963 song by Peter, Paul and Mary ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, because critics originally denounced so many of SpaceX’s technical goals as impossible. Musk further underlined his geek credentials by naming SpaceX’s automated rocket-recovery barges after the sentient, planet-scale spacecraft featured in the late Iain M Banks’ Culture novels: ‘Just Read the Instructions’ and ‘Of Course I Still Love You’.

If ever there were a dynamic duo of comic-book-hero proportions, it’s ESA’s Rosetta/Philae spacecraft/lander. Credit: ESA/AFP

European missions tend to have much less frivolous titles – Europe’s first successful space mission in 1968 was the none-too-catchy ESRO-2B, named after the predecessor to ESA, the European Space Research Organisation, that oversaw it. Lots of similar abbreviations and acronyms followed, although more ambitious missions began to earn the name of famous Europeans, from Ulysses to Herschel to Galileo (even though there had already been a US mission of that title, years before the European satnav system got started). Undoubtedly the most famous European mission of all, the comet-chasing Rosetta, took its title from the multi-language Rosetta Stone that Napoleon’s troops uncovered in Egypt, allowing them to understand ancient hieroglyphics for the first time – an inspired name for an inspiring mission that sought to decipher the history of the early solar system.

While Boaty McBoatface polled highest in the competition, they went with RRS Dir David Attenborough instead. But they gave the submersible what the public wanted. Credit: National Oceanography Center / The New York Times via Redux Pictures

Today there is no single pattern discernible in the titles of Europe’s present and future space missions (although the forthcoming Space Rider atmospheric reentry vehicle sounds as though it could as easily be a superhero instead). But perhaps there should be a little more thought given to this seemingly trivial but indispensable element of mission creation. Simply in terms of social media and search engine optimisation, a good catchy name would give a big boost to public outreach efforts. And many space missions will physically endure for centuries in high orbits – they may be some of the main traces we leave to future civilisations. Naming competitions could be one option, within reason (‘Boaty McBoatface’ may not be a very good name for a polar research vessel, but it has become undeniably notorious) or maybe a naming advisory office could be created? The only snag being, what would we call it?