First benefit of privatizing space: better names!

An article by Clara Moskowitz on MSNBC’s website (Dragon, Merlin: At SpaceX, ‘the rule is, names must be cool’) discusses the great leap forward in naming that has occurred now that SpaceX is going where NASA cannot: space, and the land of cool names.

A fire-breathing “Dragon” flew atop a “Falcon” that was granted its powers by “Merlin.” Though the scene could be out of a fantasy novel, it is also literally true.

On Friday, a robotic spacecraft called Dragon docked at the International Space Station three days after launching on a Falcon 9 rocket driven by nine Merlin engines. The mission is a test flight for commercial company SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.), which became the first company ever to send a private spaceship to the space station.

Though many pieces of SpaceX  hardware have fantastical monikers, company spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham said they weren’t all planned to fit a theme.

“They are named independently, the rule is, names must be cool,” Grantham told

SpaceX’s billionaire founder and chief designer Elon Musk has said that he named his spacecraft Dragon after the fictional creature “Puff the Magic Dragon” in the song by Peter, Paul and Mary. According to Musk, he chose the name because at the time he started the company in 2002, some critics considered his space goals fantastical.

Falcon 9 and its smaller sibling booster Falcon 1 are named in honor of the Millennium Falcon spacecraft flown by Han Solo in the sci-fi classic film “Star Wars,” Musk has said.

The rocket’s Merlin engines may be allusions to the wizard Merlin of Arthurian legend.

Here is a list of SpaceX’s equipment names:

  • Falcon (rocket)
  • Merlin (rocket engines)
  • Dragon (capsule)
  • DragonEye (a navigation sensor)
  • Draco (rocket thrusters — after the constellation for Dragon, and the Harry Potter antagonist Draco Malfoy)
  • CUCU (pronounced “cuckoo”– stands for “COTS Ultra High Frequency Communication Unit”)
  • Kestrel (upper stage rocket engine, a name of several species of birds in the falcon genus)
  • Red Dragon (Mars lander concept)
  • Grasshopper (reusable launch vehicle (RLV) — under development)

Compare those names to some of NASA’s generic naming efforts:

  • International Space Station
  • Space Shuttle
  • Skylab
  • Space Launch System (SLS) (a new rocket under development)
  • Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) (a new capsule under development)

To be fair, NASA has had some good names in the past, though they often leaned on  Greek (Apollo, Gemini) or Roman (Mercury, Saturn) mythology, which tends to be overused in many industries, with a few general mytho-poetic names (Atlantis, Columbia) thrown in for good measure. Other than those examples, NASA falls into the trap of most government agencies when they do naming, in that they feel compelled to convey patriotic or historic significance, great importance, and not risk offending anybody. That mentality has lead to a bunch of mild, OK-but-uninspired names like Pioneer, Voyager, Spirit, Opportunity, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, Mariner, Pathfinder, and Odyssey, the last one being the name of a minivan, which can’t help its cool factor.

SpaceX, welcome to outer space. As a Pioneer of non-governmental extra-terrestrial branding, we hope you Endeavour to seize this Opportunity to be a true Pathfinder, and in the Spirit of Discovery, continue to be a Challenger brand Voyager on your epic Mariner Odyssey across the cosmos.

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