May 31, 2010

A shuttle by any other name

The name of the space shuttle Atlantis has always irked me, as NASA could surely come up with a better name for a space vehicle than that of an imaginary underwater city. But now, at the end of its operational life, thanks to APOD and Wikipedia, I've discovered that the source of my irk is largely misplaced.

The RV Atlantis was the first research vessel operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Several ships are named after it, as well as the space shuttle Atlantis.

Of course, the antecedent is still there, but I suppose it's like being given the goofy name of a venerable ancestor instead of your parents making it up out of whole cloth (though Frank Zappa did come up with some doozies: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin).

The first operation shuttle was going to be called Constitution, but was ultimately named for another fictitious creation: Enterprise. It flew as a glider but never into space, so maybe it makes for an appropriate metaphor.

I attended a lecture by Leonard Nimoy in the mid-70s (the dry spell before the first movie), and he was quite proud of the shuttle's designation. Deservedly so. Who could have imagined that three seasons of such campily earnest science fiction could have inspired so many (including me)?

Eight ships of the Continental and U.S. navies have shared the name. It currently belong to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65).

And I have to admit that I entirely approve of naming the Apollo 10 Lunar Module Snoopy and the Command Module Charlie Brown.

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