The finalists were Truth, the chemist Marie Curie, and Judith Resnik, a NASA astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion in 1986. Submissions were scored not only on the quality of the essay, but also on “the appropriateness of the name for a Mars rover.” The Jet Propulsion Laboratory said it chose Sojourner in part because the name means “traveler.” It sounded better than the others.
Such caveats don’t seem to apply to missions named for men. The decisions don’t tend to be crowdsourced either. Take, for example, one of NASA’s most ambitious missions of the 21st century so far, the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope will become the most powerful in history when it launches in 2021, carrying the name of a former NASA administrator who served during the Mercury and Gemini programs that put men into orbit in the 1960s.
Sean O’Keefe, another former NASA administrator, picked the name in 2002, when the telescope project was in its early stages. O’Keefe says the effort was shaping up to become a massive undertaking that would require a successful leader of the space agency. His predecessor sprang to mind. “He was, in my estimation, the most extraordinary guy to ever serve in that job,” O’Keefe says, adding that he didn’t consider opening up the decision to the public. “There was no established standard at the time [for naming missions], and I don’t know if there is much of one now either.”
Male figures dominated the cosmos long before any spacecraft left Earth, in the names of planets, moons, and constellations of stars. They came from classical myths, which rarely ended well for the women involved. These stories were rippled with misogyny, and so is the night sky, wrote Leila A. McNeill in an Aeon essay in 2016. The constellation Andromeda is in the shape of a woman chained to a rock as punishment from Poseidon. The Pleiades, a cluster of stars in the Taurus constellation, are named for seven sisters who were pursued by Orion the hunter, and the way Orion is mapped onto his constellation, he’s still in pursuit.
The appeal of traditional naming practices persists. NASA is currently developing the Orion capsule, which may someday carry humans to the moon again and beyond. A spacecraft launched in 2011 to orbit Jupiter is called Juno, after the Roman god’s wife.
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Perhaps the naming of spacecraft seems like a passing detail in the scheme of things, especially in a cosmic sense. After all, these things eventually run out of fuel. Some of them even crash into planets and disintegrate into nothing. But some will remain in space for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They are built to last, and in turn to outlast. They will become part of humankind’s record as a spacefaring civilization. The late Carl Sagan wrote in 1976 about the historical importance of naming things in the solar system:
Some may think that the naming of the solar system is a pointless, or at least a thankless, task. But some of us are convinced it is important. The place names assigned are likely to apply for a very long time. And our remote descendants will be using our nomenclature for their homes on the broiling surface of Mercury, by the banks of the Martian valleys, on the slopes of Titanion volcanoes, or on the frozen landscape of distant Pluto, where the sun appears as a point of bright light in a sky of unremitting blackness. Their view of us, of what we cherish and hold dear, may be determined largely by how today we name the moons and planets.
His argument concerned the surfaces of other planets, which the Voyager spacecraft were about to reveal in phenomenal detail. But it applies well to the missions themselves too. Already, Apollo and Challenger are part of space history; it’s impossible to tell the story of Charles Darwin without mentioning The Beagle. Without spacecraft to reach faraway places, the hypothetical homes Sagan imagined would not be possible. If and when humanity moves off Earth, the vehicles that take us there will forever be part of our story in space.