How NASA’s Space Shuttles Got Their Names

NASA-Space-Shuttle-orbiter (Image: NASA, public domain)

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida on July 21, 2011, it marked the end of an era. With funding drying up and a mood to do something ‘new’ infecting NASA high command, the 30-year old shuttle program had been forced into early retirement. To some, that Thursday morning in Kennedy Space Center, the stars had never seemed so far away. As Atlantis slowed to a halt on the runway, observers around the world noted that a nation’s dreams stopped with it. The optimism that infused mid-20th century space travel seemed as old and worn as the fleet itself – a relic of a bygone era.

Fast forward two years to 2013 and the shuttles are now housed in museums around the United States. NASA has set its sights on exploring Mars and space travel is moving incrementally into the commercial era. But we here at Urban Ghosts have always retained a special fondness for those shuttle missions – and we’re not ready to say goodbye just yet.

With the last shuttle finally put on public display earlier this summer, we’ve decided to cash-in on our collective childhood nostalgia with a quick look at the history – and naming – of each shuttle:


space-shuttle-enterprise (Image: NASA, public domain)

Enterprise is the original shuttle. A prototype that changed the way we thought about space travel, forever. Dreamt up in the early 70’s, just months after Apollo 11 had put Neil Armstrong on the Moon, it became one of the most-admired designs in space history. The Russians even copied it wholesale, repackaging it as Buran (aka ‘Snowstorm’) and trying to convince the world that the similarities were only coincidental.

Despite all this, Enterprise never flew in space. Originally intended to be refitted for flight, it was passed over first for Challenger and then Endeavour. Throughout its life, Enterprise remained only a prototype – an image of a dream rather than the real thing.

space-shuttle-enterprise-starship-enterprise (Image: NASA, public domain; inset, low res screen shot via Wikipedia)

Naming: From the go, NASA had intended to name their prototype shuttle Constitution, a slightly clumsy appeal to patriotism that impressed no-one. Among those unimpressed was Gerald Ford, who just-happened to be the target of an organised letter-writing campaign by Star Trek fans to get the shuttle named Enterprise. Either Ford was secretly a Trekkie or he simply liked the name, because he suggested NASA call it Enterprise and the rest is history.


space-shuttle-columbia (Image: NASA, public domain)

Constructed in 1979, Columbia is arguably the most-iconic shuttle of all time – for better or for worse. The first reusable winged spaceship to make orbit, it achieved what Enterprise only promised, revolutionising space flight. By the time of its final mission, it had spent 300 days in space and flown over 125 million miles.

Yet what Columbia is best-remembered for today is its final flight. On February 1, 2003 the crew attempted re-entry, unaware that a tiny hole had been punctured in one of the wings. In the heat of re-entry, a hole like that can make all the difference. Columbia broke apart over Texas at 9am, leaving no survivors.

columbia-ship-apollo-11 (Images: John B. Horner; Vidor; public domain)

Naming: There were three precedents to the naming of Columbia. In 1792 a small sailing vessel from Boston explored the mouth of the Columbia River. Decades later, one of the first US Navy ships to circumnavigate the globe was called Columbia. Finally, Columbia was the name of the Apollo 11 command module. In short, it was a name with good pedigree for an epoch-shaking first.


space-shuttle-challenger (Images: NASA (and inset), public domain)

The Challenger disaster is probably the most-infamous moment in NASA’s 55 year history, the dark side to triumphs like the Moon landing and Hubble Telescope. On January 28, 1986 Challenger set off on only its tenth mission. Barely a minute into the flight it disintegrated, killing everyone onboard. As a result, the whole shuttle fleet was grounded for two and a half years.

HMS-Challenger (Image: William Frederick Mitchell, public domain)

Naming: Challenger was named after an old British ship, the HMS Challenger. Originally the pride of the Australia Station, it was eventually converted to a kind of seafaring laboratory in 1870. Guns were ripped out, cannons replaced with specimen jars and microscopes set up in former ammunition rooms. Apparently, something about this appealed to NASA’s naming guys, who borrowed its title not once, but twice.


space-shuttle-discovery (Image: NASA, public domain)

Discovery is the shuttle every kid grew up wanting to fly one day – the most-travelled, most-used manned spaceship in the whole of human history. In its 27 years of flight, Discovery changed the way we saw the universe. It took the oldest astronaut into space (aged 77!), became the first shuttle to be piloted by a woman and was the first one back in space following both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. It flew the 100th shuttle mission, was the first shuttle to dock with the International Space Station and carried the first Russian launched in an American spacecraft. If, like me, you grew up as a geeky little kid enthralled by all things space-age, watching Discovery land for the last time on March 9, 2011 was probably the most heart-breaking thing you’d ever seen.

HMS-Discovery (Image: US Government; Samuel Adkin; Unknown; Griffin & Co; public domain)

Naming: Discovery – here was a word that seemed to sum up everything about the wonder of spaceflight; the dream of one day seeing something new in a world where everything had already been explored. No surprise then that it came from four pioneering British ships: ships that had headed to the North Pole, the Antarctic and the Northwest Passage in search of somewhere unexplored.

The main inspiration, however, is undoubtedly HMS Discovery, the ship that accompanied James Cook on his final, fateful voyage. As someone who put exploration above everything, including his own life, Captain Cook seems the perfect inspiration for such an iconic spacecraft.


space-shuttle-atlantis (Image: NASA, public domain)

If Discovery’s fame rests on its long history, Atlantis’ to a large extent rests on its final flight. Its touchdown on July 21, 2011 marked the end of the entire shuttle era and it would be impossible to ignore the orbiter that flew that monumental voyage. Yet although Atlantis didn’t quite have the same power over the public as Discovery, it had one heck of an impressive record on important flights. Aside from being the star of NASA’s 100th manned space mission, it also flew during the first joint American-Russian mission, closing the book on the turbulent Cold War era.

RV-Atlantis (Images: NASA; US Government; public domain)

Naming: Atlantis was named for RV Atlantis, a research vessel that first sailed from 1931 to 1964. Amazingly, Argentina acquired her in 1966 and continues to use her to this day, making RV Atlantis one of the oldest ships in the whole damn world. Kind of fitting, don’t you think?


space-shuttle-endeavour (Image: NASA, public domain)

Built in 1992, Endeavour was the baby of the shuttle family – the younger sibling that never quite measured up to its older sisters. At the last minute, it was robbed of the honour of flying the final mission when Atlantis’ last flight was unexpectedly approved. Perhaps it’s due to the circumstances of Endeavour’s ‘birth’ that it was never so widely favoured: the only shuttle to be built after the Challenger disaster, it always carried the taint of that tragedy, right up to its final flight in May 2011.

HMS-Endeavour (Image: Samuel Atkins, public domain)

Naming: Weirdly enough, Endeavour was named the result of a national school’s competition to find a name for the new shuttle. ‘Weirdly’ because apparently one third of all state-level entries chose the name independently of one another – in recognition of HMS Endeavour, the ship that took James Cook on his first voyage. Hence the British spelling, something even NASA famously got wrong at a 2007 launch.

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