On a lighter note: Letting the crowd choose your new rocket’s name has big dangers…unless you fiddle it (Updated)

by | Mar 6, 2015 | commercial launch services, Military space, On a Lighter Note, SpaceX | 0 comments

Struck by increased completion from SpaceX, hindered by Russian restrictions on the Atlas V’s RD-180 engine being used for military launches, and aware that its Delta IV was, excepting its “Heavy” version, too costly to be competitive, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has moved quickly to respond, cancelling all Delta IVs but the Delta IV Heavy and ordering a new rocket to replace both the Delta IV and its Atlas V stable mate. However ULA don’t know what to call it and somewhat riskily they have asked for suggestions.

Apart from having to decide on this new launch vehicle’s technology, ULA also needs an “interesting” name for it…and quickly given that it could be ready in 2019.  As such ULA has turned to its employees and the public to choose one.  But as we shall see, having the public name your “pet project” can be fraught with danger.

The propellant and engines for this new rocket, which is likely to be partially reusable, has yet to be decided. The LOx (Liquid Oxygen)/Methane powered BE-4, built by Blue Origin, is reported to be favourite, but the LOx/Kerosene AR-1 of Aerojet Rocketdyne is not out of the running.  However, technology aside, the thing which is preying on the minds of ULA executives is that its current acronym-driven Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) designation is just to boring to contemplate carrying on with. As such the firm has come up with a competition to come up with a better, snappier moniker.

The company thus turned to its own employees for suggestions and some 400 were submitted.  A set of three finalists will be voted on by the general public, though somewhat undemocratically, the ULA high command chose the finalists on the shortlist.

Such undemocratic rigging and vetting can ruin reputations. For example, in 2007  staff at the long-running and much-loved BBC children’s show Blue Peter were found to have had gerrymandered the vote to name its new kitten to “Socks” instead of “Cookie”, the public’s real first choice of name. The show had to make a grovelling apology and get a second kitten which was duly called “Cookie”.

Of course, sometimes such vote-rigging and candidate vetting can be justifiable – if done in order to avoid mass offence.  There is an apocryphal tale of when broadcasters had to veto a winner of a public vote to name another programme’s puppy given that calling a dog by the winning name (beginning with “M”) could have started a religious war.

Back to rockets.

So what to call this new space lifter? Unofficial suggestions for the shortlist ranged from the rather unimaginative Delta V or Atlas 6, to the rather more jestful (if slightly offensive) Congressional Rocket & Astronaut Projector (CRAP). Your correspondent’s own suggestion for this new launch vehicle was “Ramrod” – an ideal name for a thrusting rocket.  Your correspondent could just imagine hearing the launch announcer saying:  “Ramrod 1 is ready for lift off!” 🙂

Mind you, this suggestion was made only because this writer would have been amused to have had Ramrod as his middle name. Well, David “Ramrod” Todd does have a certain ring to it, even if it is a misleading offence under the Trades Description Act. 🙂

Sadly, in the end, “Ramrod” did not make the cut for the competition, nor for your correspondent’s name.  The three rather tedious, albeit low risk, rocket name finalists which will go forward for the public vote are “Eagle”, “Freedom” and “GalaxyOne”.

Of course, if the public goes for the first of these, and if the early flights of this new vehicle do not go well, then Apollo 11’s immortal line “The Eagle has Landed” could soon be morphed into “The Eagle has crashed”.

STOP PRESS 30 March 2015:  In a sudden realisation that they had picked some clodhopping names for the shortlist, ULA has admitted two more contenders: Zeus – King of the Greek gods, and Vulcan, alternatively the Greek god of fire and volcanoes, the name of the fictional planet where Star Trek’s Spock character came from, and also the name for Avro’s most excellent Cold War-era delta-shaped jet bomber. There may be some sentiment at work here given that Leonard Nimoy, the actor who famously played the Vulcan science officer role, passed away in February.


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