Why it was Inappropriate for NASA to name a Space Shuttle "Enterprise."

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Since last week's piece on how the Shuttles got their names, I've taken some flack (Mostly through Email) about whether or not it was inappropriate for NASA to name a shuttle after the Starship Enterprise. Most of this has revolved around two points: 1) It wasn't a real shuttle anyway, just a glider, so who cares? and 2) Trek has inspired people to become scientists and astronauts and blah blah blah blah. Here's my take on both of those:

Firstly, the shuttle "Enterprise" was intended to fly. It was a fully functional shuttle, apart from the engines and the OMS. The idea was to eventually turn it into a *real* shuttle, and it would be the fifth one in the fleet. That never happened for a variety of reasons.

Secondly: I'm not a huge fan of Trek, but I don't hate it. I think TOS is a nice introduction to SF, but it's not the be-all end-all like a LOT of people tend to think it is. (And brother, a loooooooot of people honestly think it is.) Subsequent shows were far less good (I'm not saying 'bad,' Trek has never been bad, but let's just say the average was far lower more recently), and less interested in Science Fiction and more interested in just keeping the franchise profitable.

And while I don't doubt that the show *did* inspire some people to go into science and stuff, I suspect that many of them would have done so anyway. I mean, we've all heard of people who went into medicine because of Dr. Kildaire or House or MASH or whatever, *but* there are scores of millions who watched the same shows who *didn't* go into medicine, so the average is pretty low. Far lower than a high school physics introductory course, I'd suspect. Likewise, a lot of people became Submariners because of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which was a patently stupid show. So if the Navy decided to name a five billion dollar sub "Seaview," would you be righteously outraged as a taxpayer? I would be, and I *LIKE* the show. And, as I say, most of these people were *already* interested in the sciences and subs and medicine and whatnot. I don't doubt that the shows might have been the trigger event that made 'em say "Hey, I can do this!" And, hey, that's great, but let's not overstate stuff here. And let's not forget the thousands of people who watched Trek, decided to become an Astronaut, then turned out to be really bad at math and science and stuff, and became NASCAR drivers instead. For everyone who actually was inspired and followed through, and succeeded, and gave credit afterwards, there must be tens of thousands who were likewise inspired and washed out, right? Logically? Many are called, but few are chosen? And most of those called by Trek are *only* interested in Trek.

You wanna' name a space shuttle after something that inspires people? Name 'em after teachers, not some goofy TV show from 50 years ago. Nor, for that matter, should you name stuff after a goofy TV show from 15 years ago (B5) even though I *liked* that show. (And it *did* have some real science in it, but appears to have inspired no one, or at least it didn't inspire anyone as evangelisticaly preachy about it as the Trekies. And, yes, I know I suggested B5 names, but I was joking.)

Added to which: there's no actual *real* science in Trek, and in fact there's lots of *bad* Science in Trek. I recently interviewed the guy who runs/writes the Atomic Rockets site, which is all about being a *real* science resource for aspiring SF writers. (Here: http://www.republibot.com/content/interview-winchell-chung-atomic-rockets ) He said that basically he thought Trek is actually hurting the sciences because it routinely throws off completely impossible crap, and treats science as magic that can instantly solve any problem. (This is increasingly a problem in TV SF, Sigh.)

Anyway: Let's assume that Trek *did* inspire people. Isn't that a bit embarrassing in and of itself? Your average American on the street can't name *five* astronauts. Most can't name three, but 90% can name all the major characters from at least two Trek shows. Ignore the real in favor of the fake? Well, it's very Philip K. Dick, so I'm amused by it, but I don't think it should be encouraged.

Note that none of this has anything to do with Trek as *entertainment,* nor the value thereof, it's more a commentary of the cult of Trek that has sprung up around it and insists on attributing all that is good and pure to it as a way of justifying its existence and their own obsessions. It's disingenuous.

I maintain that it's an embarrassment and entirely inappropriate to name government spacecraft after pop culture icons. You're free to disagree, of course, but your feelings on the matter are sick and wrong.



I Would Like to Respectfully Disagree

SheldonCooper's picture

The reason I reject your premise outright has very little to do with the fact that I am a rabid Star Trek fan and much more to do with the reason Roddenberry named his ship Enterprise in the first place (it was originally called Yorktown): the name Enterprise is historical!

One of our first ships, before we were even the United States of America, was a sloop called Enterprise and commissioned in 1775. In fact, in the first 100 years after the Revolutionary War we had 5 ships which beared the name Enterprise.

USS Enterprise (1775)

Enterprise (1776)

USS Enterprise (1799)

USS Enterprise (1831)

USS Enterprise (1874)

Beyond that, there was a WW1 vessel:
USS Enterprise (SP-790)

A WW2 vessel:
USS Enterprise (CV-6)
Which is the most decorated ship in the history of the US Navy, by the way.

A nuclear aircraft carrier which has been around since before Vietnam and has participated in every naval conflict we've had since and which is being decommissioned next year:
USS Enterprise (CVN-65)

And there may already be another Enterprise waiting in the wings to take 65's place:

And that's just US history. The Brits have their own long history with maritime ships named Enterprise. And you can SAY that space travel isn't maritime all you want (and, you know, it isn't), but all of our other shuttles were named after maritime ships as well, so it is not only appropriate to name a shuttle Enterprise, but makes sense. And, of course, these were all taxpayer-funded vessels and every one of them pre-dates Star Trek (except for CVN-80, which hasn't been christened yet, so may or may not be called Enterprise).

Your Honor, the defense rests.

One lab accident away from being a supervillain! Bazinga!

As I remember

neorandomizer's picture

One of the problems I remember congress bring up was the fact the name was taken by the carrier Enterprise. They felt that the military connotation of the name was inappropriate for a mandated civilian agency. The Star Trek connection was also mentioned but the news did not play it up anymore than the military name issue.

There was already a tradition of manned spacecraft being named for TV characters when Apollo 10 named the Lem Snoopy and the command module Charlie Brown there was not a large hue and cry. Apollo 13 named their command module Discovery after the ship in 2001 so this was not a new issue for NASA.

It's Only Logical

SheldonCooper's picture

The shuttle program was commissioned before I was born (slightly), so I can't claim to remember any controversy, but the only shuttles that WEREN'T named for US Navy ships were Discovery and Endeavor, but there are old British ships with those names. And Enterprise is the most famous name for maritime vessels, before Star Trek, so it all makes sense. I think it's a non-sequitor, but since the subject is being brought up, I think any controversy is unfounded.

One lab accident away from being a supervillain! Bazinga!


Mama Fisi's picture

I think that more people get exposed to the names of the TOS Trek characters than they do to the names of real astronauts. It's not that people pay more attention to Trek, just that the characters are far more ubiquitous. It's like asking someone to draw a cat, then to draw a slow loris.

From TOS there were seven main characters. From NASA there are thousands of technicians, astronauts, crew chiefs, engineers, designers, spokesmen, and test pilots, past and present. Even if you just restricted it to astronauts who flew in space, there are still dozens of names to keep in mind.

Which is as it should be. I remember hoping for the day when a space launch would be so commpnplace that nobody would carry it on the news.

Masquerading as a normal person day after day is exhausting.
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Republibot 4.0's picture

I fail to see the problem with naming the first shuttle "Enterprise." It's not like it set any sort of precedent. The first nuclear-driven submarine was named "Nautilus." One of the Mercury capsules was named "Liberty Bell" due to its shape--it even had a crack painted on the outside. After Gus Grissom sank that one, his next capsule was named "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

There was a probe named "Deep Impact" after the movie, and another probe named "DeepSpace One."

IIRC the Enterprise was originally going to be named "Columbia," but a letter-writing campaign convinced NASA to change the name.

Engineers, in case you haven't noticed by now, have a strange sense of humor. You can pretend that the ranks of NASA aren't really filled with Trekkies, but you'd only be fooling yourself. In a documentary interview, the engineers who worked on "DeepSpace One" specifically talked about the ST:TOS episode entitled "Spock's Brain".

NASA is chronically in desperate need of attention from the press, so giving their craft or missions pop-culture-reference names only stands to reason.

At least they didn't call the first shuttle "Jupiter 3."

*That* would have been stupid.

Remember the 1970s!

kelloggs2066's picture

Doesn't quite have the ring of "Remember the Alamo" does it?

It's important to remember the Shuttle Program in the context of the time. NASA was on the verge of non-existence since Apollo got cancelled. They were using spare parts from Apollo to do Skylab (which only went 3 missions) and the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (which was only one grandstanding flag wave).

So, when a letter writing campaign to name it "Enterprise" by the Trekkies took place, NASA grabbed what publicity it could and went with it.

Frankly, right now, in 2012, I'd be willing to name a spacecraft the "USS Hogwarts" or the "USS Sparkly Vampire" if it would bring back our Manned Space Program.

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Name Thief

Scorpious's picture

It'd make more sense to have a HMS Hogwarts ;-)