NASA has specific rules about naming its missions. In 2000, a naming committee reviewed more than 200 suggestions for a spacecraft bound for Mars the following year. The group settled on Astrobiological Reconnaissance and Elemental Surveyor, or ARES, like the Greek god of war. The Roman version of that god is Mars, so the name seemed appropriate. But not everyone was on board.
“It was not very compelling, was awfully aggressive, and as an acronym was pretty nerdy,” explains Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University professor who served as NASA’s first Mars program director at the time, in his 2012 book on exploring the red planet.
Hubbard and others pointed out that the year the spacecraft was set to be launched was conveniently in the title of one of the most iconic science-fiction books, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The naming committee said it had indeed considered “Mars Odyssey,” but rejected it over copyright concerns. Still, the name was pretty good, so NASA emailed Clarke, who lived in Sri Lanka, and asked for permission. He enthusiastically agreed.
Mars Odyssey launched on this day 15 years ago, with the task of measuring the amount of hydrogen just under the Martian surface—which could indicate the presence of water—studying surface minerals and geological processes, and measuring the planet’s radiation environment. The craft reached Mars 200 days later and slowly settled into its orbit. The orbiter completed its formal, $297 million mission in 2004, but it’s still humming along. Odyssey holds the record for the longest-surviving active spacecraft around Mars.