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New Horizons at Pluto illustration
Coming up with the name for the first spacecraft mission to Pluto proved nearly as challenging as designing the spacecraft. (credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)

New Horizons indeed

April was a memorable month for the New Horizons spacecraft team, for it saw the completion of spacecraft assembly and the accomplishment of a thorough Comprehensive Performance Test (CPT) that put the spacecraft and its seven instruments through rigorous functional testing. On the last day of April, we began the first of the major flight mission simulations. This will be followed by another CPT run lasting through mid-May, and then the beginning of environmental testing. At the end of May, NASA Headquarters will conduct a review of mission readiness for the planned January 2006 Jupiter-Pluto launch window.

Now that we are moving into the testing phase, I thought it would be worth taking a few minutes to step back to the earliest days of the project and recount the insider story of how New Horizons got its name.

As you might know, in late December 2000, NASA unexpectedly announced it would solicit competitive proposals to design and construct a Pluto-Kuiper Belt (PKB) mission spacecraft. Within two weeks of that announcement, half a dozen university-industry teams formed to compete for PKB.

My first reaction, of course, like everyone else’s, was to find a suitable acronym. After all, that’s just what you reflexively do in the space business.

Our team consisted of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL), Stanford University, Ball Aerospace, and just over 20 science team co-investigators. As the project leader and principal investigator (PI), it was one of my responsibilities to honcho the selection of a name. I wanted us to choose a name that was both descriptive and inspiring—after all, this was to be a historic mission set to explore a whole new realm of the solar system.

I soon found out, however, that it wasn’t as easy as you might think to settle on a good name. In fact, it ended up taking many weeks, with over three dozen separate suggestions evaluated. It’s kind of like naming a baby: you have to choose a name that you’ll be willing to enjoy using for many years, and all kinds of people want to give suggestions and opinions.

My first reaction, of course, like everyone else’s, was to find a suitable acronym. After all, that’s just what you reflexively do in the space business. But if you are looking for acronyms to name a Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission, you quickly find they all end up being words with a lot of Ps and Ks in them, representing the mission’s targets, and lots of Es for “exploration” or Ms for “mission.” Acronym suggestions began to roll in within a few hours of the call for ideas: COPE, DOPE, ELOPE, NOPE, POPE, PUSS, PIMPLE, PLATITUDE, PIP, and PORE (and a couple of others I won’t mention in mixed company) all had suitably descriptive names when spelled out, but were wholly unacceptable as acronyms.

Despite many efforts and many, many scrabble-scribbled pieces of paper, we never came up with an acronym I could get excited about for PKB. A typical example was APEX, for Augmented PKB EXploration—which made an overly oblique reference to a slogan I coined in the early 1990s about Pluto exploration, that “it is the Everest of planetary exploration.” PEAK was a similar attempt, which felt equally uninspired. And there was FARR, in honor of APL’s recently successful NEAR mission to nearby asteroid Eros and symbolizing the contrast of a mission going to the edge of the solar system. But FARR, while kind of fun, clearly had too much attitude in its acronym (Finally a Return to Reconnaissance) to be acceptable.

One of our competitor teams revealed they would be called POSSE, for Pluto Outer Solar System Explorer. I could see from this and my own repeated, unsatisfactory attempts, that inspiration would require something that the restriction to dry, descriptive aerospace acronyms has not delivered.

Name games

So by mid-January 2001, I gave up on finding an acronym to label our baby. I told the science team to start thinking differently: rather than an acronym, our name would be a brand name for the mission, a slogan capturing the essence of what we were doing in some implicit or explicit way.

I don’t have a record of all of the team’s subsequent ideas. I wish I had kept a complete list. Nevertheless, each time we had candidate, I’d ask people on the team, as well as family, colleagues and neighbors, what they thought of it —test marketing the brand name, if you will.

Some of those prospective names we came up with and discussed by phone and e-mail included:

  • X, in honor of the search for Planet X that led to the discovery of Pluto, and also honoring the X-planes that pioneered supersonic flight.
  • Tombaugh Explorer, honoring Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh.
  • New Worlds Explorer, describing what we would be doing.
  • New Frontiers, symbolizing the exploration ethic of a mission to the last unexplored planet and harkening back to John Kennedy’s halcyon Apollo era at NASA.
  • One Giant Leap (OGL), linking Neil Armstrong’s historic footsteps to our historic journey across the expanse of our solar system.

We wanted to find a name that would be both meaningful and memorable, but it was obvious it was taking too long.

But these various names, and many others like Outward Bound, High Frontier, and Voyager 3, each had their own problems. Most were flawed as evidenced by the bad connotations they suggested to some people (“You can’t use ‘X’ because it connotes that drug, Ecstasy.” Or: “Don’t use New Frontiers; it was how they referred to Kennedy’s space program.” Or: “‘One Giant Leap’? Do you mean the mission is a leap of faith?”).

Other names were too vague a reference for people (“What is Tombaugh? Is it a Kuiper Belt Object? I thought Pluto was the place you all are going.”). As to Voyager 3, the problem was that our PKB competitors at the Jet Propulsion Lab had flown Voyagers 1 and 2, so our choosing Voyager 3 would be like the Chinese calling their first manned space flight Mercury 8.

As January wore on, we were all, frankly, getting tired of the continuing name game. Our project manager at the time, Tom Coughlin, just wanted a name he could call the project as we started to write the proposal. “Just make up something that’ll do, it doesn’t have to be anything special. People don’t know what to call this thing and the proposal is due in less than two months. I’m going to call it ‘Stern’ until you make up your mind.”

“Sheesh,” I thought. Here the science team wanted to strike just the right tone, and to simultaneously describe the mission and capture the simple concept that we would be going new places and seeing new things. We wanted to find a name that would be both meaningful and memorable, but it was obvious it was taking too long. I told Tom we would have a name by the beginning of February.

A “new” idea

I recall taking a long Saturday run across Boulder to work on ideas of my own. I quickly decided that the very positive word “New” should be part of the name for PKB, for it was new in so many ways. “Darn,” I thought, “New Frontiers had been soooo close, it was too bad it might be too risky for NASA. What to do?”

Horizons are such pleasant things-like rainbows-nobody, I thought, could find a black cloud connotation lurking in a name like New Horizons.

Then, as I waited for a streetlight to change near the intersection of Foothills and Arapahoe and looked west to the Rocky Mountains on the horizon, it just hit me. We could call it “New Horizons”—for we were seeking new horizons to explore at Pluto and Charon and the Kuiper Belt, and we were pioneering new horizons programmatically too as the first-ever PI-led outer planets mission.

What a great, forward-looking, positive metaphor for exploration (which, after all, is about traveling from one horizon to another)! Horizons are such pleasant things-like rainbows-nobody, I thought, could find a black cloud connotation lurking in a name like New Horizons. It was easy to say, easy to remember, and it symbolized what the mission would be doing in two important ways. I liked this moniker. I could tell it was right as I ran farther.

I slept on it, and it still sounded good, so on February 4 I asked the science team to vote on New Horizons and a couple of the remaining contenders. New Horizons won hands down (“Houston, we have a name!”). The e-mail I sent out announcing the result of the vote was dated late on Monday evening, February 5, 2001.

With this, the deed of naming our proposed mission was done, though it had taken almost two months and about a dozen false starts. I recall thinking back then: If we win this competition, and if Congress finds the funding to make this mission happen, if the mission can stay on track technically and within budget so that it actually reaches the launch pad, and if it all works in flight—if all these things go our way—then “New Horizons” will be found in textbooks and encyclopedias as the name of the spaceship that first explored the last of the nine classical planets.

Someday, I told myself, I’ll have to write down how the name came to be.