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What’s in a name..?


Yesterday NASA announced the shortlist of names for the Mars Science Laboratory, and invited people to vote for their favourite via a website. Since then I’ve been pondering my vote. A lot. And I mean A Lot. Because I’m afraid to say – and here I mean absolutely no offense is meant towards any of the kids who suggested the names – that none of the names really jumps out at me as appropriate or exciting enough to represent what will be a fascinating and hopefully paradigm-shifting mission.

But I have a dilemma here. I’m very conscious of the fact that I wanted to throw a shoe through my computer monitor when I read that the MERs had been christened “Spirit” and “Opportunity” – they just seemed like the worst names in the world! – but somehow they’ve since “grown into” their names, and even taken on personalities and traits to go with those names, and I now can’t imagine them being called anything else…

Many people I know online are very disappointed in the names, and feel like I do – they’re not quite right somehow. Some have even suggested it was a mistake to ask children to suggest the names in the first place. I have to disagree with that. I personally think it’s great that kids are involved in this naming process, it really helps them feel involved and gives them an added interest in the mission. I can easily imagine the kids who took part in this competition sitting at their kitchen tables, staring at a piece of blank paper, tapping a pencil on their teeth and Thinking Very Hard about what name to suggest, what name would be fitting and “spacey”. That has to be a good thing, right? It’s just a shame that this particular list of names is, on the face of it, rather uninspiring.

But I guess that from a small kid’s point of view those names ARE quite spacey… try putting an exclamation mark after some of them and you ARE a kid again: Journey! Adventure! Vision! That works better, eh?

I think the problem is that many adult “space enthusiasts” are thinking how naff it will be when we see certain of those names on Exploratorium, or MMB, or on forums like UMSF. We have a rather different perspective to a 9 year old.

So, where am I? Well, after a day of thinking about it, “Amelia” is definitely growing on me, as it was – as I suspected – suggested as a tribute to the famous aviator Amelia Earhart.


I like that. It would provide a great link with an inspirational figure from history, there would be a great background story to hang educational and Outreach programs on to, and if the rover was named after a woman there’d be no geeky arguments about the “sex” of the rover… 😉

But others have suggested that it would be wrong to name MSL after someone who went missing, because it would link the rover to a failure, instead of a success, and that would just be asking for the media to use that angle and also to tempt fate for the rover itself.

Naaah. Are we so superstitious that we think naming a spacecraft after an aviator and adventurer who was lost – doing what they loved – will condemn that spacecraft to the same fate? I don’t recall anyone suggesting the Galileo probe should be called something else because Galileo was put on trial for advancing knowledge. (Actually, in hindsight, as someone pointed out on UMSF, maybe Galileo WAS a bad choice for a name, as its main comms antenna didn’t unfurl properly…) And to the best of my knowledge no-one said “No! You can’t call it that! That ship sank! You’ll doom Oppy!” when the name ‘Endurance’ was given to one of the rover Opportunity’s target craters, in honour of the ship that took Shackleton and his team towards the south pole – and was crushed by the Antarctic ice…

No, I think Amelia is definitely growing on me. I hate to use the phrase, but it strikes me as the best of a bad bunch. It could be nicely abbreviated too – “Amy” sounds okay to me, and sounds not unlike “Wall-E”, the Disney animated character that features so heavily on the MSL websites.

Besides, isn’t it a bit romantic? Or is there no place in the exploration of space for romance anymore..?


2 Responses

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