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NSRC 2020

 
Orion illustration
Orion, formerly known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle, is one of a number of new—and sometimes confusing—names used to identify key elements of the Vision for Space Exploration. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

The name game

…To know ultraviolet, infrared and x-rays
Beauty to find in so many ways
Two notes of the chord, that’s our full scope
But to reach the chord is our life’s hope
And to name the chord is important to some
So they give it a word, and the word is “Om”
*
- The Moody Blues, “The Word”

* Or “the electromagnetic spectrum”. But hey, whatever.

What’s in a name? Apparently everything, if recent events in the space world—both the astronomical and human spaceflight arenas—are an indication.

There was of course the big news recently that the International Astronomical Union voted on a new definition of the word “planet” that demotes Pluto to being a “dwarf planet”. Historically, it’s not the first time this has happened: the “dwarf planet” (formerly “asteroid”) Ceres, large enough to be basically spherical, was once also considered a “planet” too.

Of course, “planet”, “asteroid”, and “dwarf planet” are labels that are being applied by humans, who have only recently (on the timescales of the universe) formed language, to denote these long-existing objects for other humans, and to somehow make sense of their surroundings.

NASA has unveiled yet another name in its new lunar program: Project Orion, an unfortunate echo of the earlier nuclear-propelled rocket project.

It’s a tough day for science educators and the general public, who must adjust their worldview—or is that “worldsview”?—to accept that there aren’t Nine Planets, but now Eight Planets, and that maybe all this isn’t really set in stone (or planetary rock), but is in fact an artifice assembled by mere mortals. Space advocates might actually be glad for the consternation accompanying the current Pluto thing for the awareness it raises.

A more significant aspect of this issue is the understanding the formation of planetary systems. As we struggle with how to think about our own solar system, we must also deal with our ever-growing awareness of those around other stars. Dust coalesces into all kinds of bodies, which in our local neighborhood we have referred to as “planets”, “asteroids”, “meteoroids”, “comets”, “minor planets” (a nice catch-all term, really) and now “dwarf planets”. Surely we will be scratching our heads trying to categorize new bodies orbiting other stars.

There’s been recent monkeying with monikers on the human spaceflight side as well. NASA has unveiled yet another name in its new lunar program: Project Orion, an unfortunate echo of the earlier nuclear-propelled rocket project. “Orion” is now the official name of what had been known in Apollo as the “Command Service Module” (or separately as the “Command Module” and the “Service Module”). “Orion” had been known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), even though (a) it’s intended to explore the Moon, not the crew and (b) won’t always be used for exploration, but sometimes for bringing people and items to and from the International Space Station.

There has been a real pile-on of names in this program. Here’s a recap:

Program: Project Constellation
Name designated by the White House, used rather sporadically in reference to this program. The “Project” designation makes it seem less than what it really is, compared to “the Constellation Program”. NASA seems to have seen this, and has begun sneaking references to “the Constellation Program” into its own web site.

Rockets: Ares 1 and Ares 5
These were the Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV) and the Cargo Launch Vehicle (CaLV), particularly confusing and awkward designations. For a short time, there seemed to be unofficial designations for these rockets: Altair and Artemis, which are nice enough individually, but rather confusing together.

Space vehicles: Project Orion, Earth Departure Stage, Lunar Surface Access Module
Orion was the CEV, with separate command and service modules. The Earth Departure Stage (EDS) is the upper stage of what is now the Ares 5, and is analogous to the Saturn S-4B stage. The Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM) is thus far very much in the mold of the Apollo Lunar Module.

Frankly, there are some problems with “Project Orion”. There’s the “Project” part, which implies that building the crew capsule and its sometimes-attached propulsion element is a project unto itself, rather than part of Project Constellation.

There’s also the need to keep referring to a command module (the crew capsule) and service module (the crew capsule’s discardable propulsion element), since they are indeed distinct elements. So now we’ll presumably speak of an Orion Command Module and an Orion Service Module. Except that they’re really the Constellation Command Module and Constellation Service Module. Or perhaps they’re the Constellation Orion Command Module and Constellation Orion Service Module.

I wouldn’t be too surprised if everything moves over to “Orion” after this President Bush leaves office. Among other things, “Orion” takes less typing than “Constellation” and is even one letter shorter than “Apollo”. If anyone hates extra typing less than a space writer, it’s a space engineer.

The award last week of the Project Orion contract to the Lockheed Martin team did little to set things straight. In at least one case, a news outlet referred to the program as “Orion” by citing a previous award having nothing to do with Project Constellation’s Project Orion Command and Service Modules. Indeed, the logos of the two “projects” themselves are actually not too unalike. How can we expect the public at large to figure all this out?

I wouldn’t be too surprised if everything moves over to “Orion” after this President Bush leaves office. Among other things, “Orion” takes less typing than “Constellation” and is even one letter shorter than “Apollo”. If anyone hates extra typing less than a space writer, it’s a space engineer. (It also prevents rubes from referring to the whole thing as “Project Consternation” or “Project Constipation”.)

What will lunar missions themselves be called? Constellation 1, 2, 3…? Will flights to the ISS also be part of Project Constellation? Or maybe all flights using an Ares rocket be given a “system designation” like the Space Shuttle (Space Transportation System – STS) such as STS-115, STS-116, and so forth? If so, will be “Ares Launch System” ALS-1, 2, 3…? Or perhaps “Constellation Ares Launch System” CALS-1, 2, 3…?

The crew capsules (Command Modules) are likely to be reusable to some extent. Will they therefore carry individual names like Space Shuttles? Will crews get to name at least the expendable portions of their vehicles, as they did in Apollo? (There’s an opportunity for this cash-strapped Apollo Program wannabe: corporate naming rights! “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The AFLAC has landed.”)

Mind you, we haven’t gotten to the lunar landing vehicle yet. Apollo had the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) which was later shortened to LM (Lunar Module), although still referred to vocally as a “Lem” and not an “Elem”. It had two parts: an Ascent Stage and a Descent Stage, in which the former was the “crew capsule” and the latter a propulsion element with landing legs.

In the current effort, we so far have the ungainly LSAM: Lunar Surface Access Module. This is bound to change, although it’s unclear whether NASA will pull out yet another moniker for this craft, lump it into “Project Orion”, or do something else entirely.

To compare all this with the Apollo Program: The overall lunar program was Apollo, as in “the Apollo Program”. It was preceded by two distinct preparatory programs: Mercury and Gemini. All these terms came from Greco-Roman mythology. (It’s interesting that the mythology name is now applied to the new CSM—a program piece—and not the program itself.)

The rockets used in the Apollo Program were the Saturns: Saturn 1, 1B and 5. (The current program has one on Apollo there. Saturn rockets never launched anything to Saturn, the Ringed Planet, while Ares rockets may indeed launch craft to Ares, aka Mars, the Red Planet.) The Saturn launch vehicle stages had related designations: S-4B (Saturn stage type four-b) and such. Project Constellation, meanwhile, has its Earth Departure Stage, while the other rocket stages seem to lack solid nomenclature.

It’s interesting to note that humans seem to have at least as much concern and trouble over naming the things that they create as they do with those things that have existed before they did.

The individual pieces of the system used in the Apollo Program had unapologetically functional names: CM, SM, CSM, LEM/LM. Crews got to nickname their CSM and LM for each mission, while missions themselves related firmly to the program. Hence, for example, there was Columbia and Eagle (CSM and LM) for the Apollo 11 mission.

So, what to make of all the recent name-calling? It’s interesting to note that humans seem to have at least as much concern and trouble over naming the things that they create as they do with those things that have existed before they did. While people agonize over “saying farewell” to Pluto, the thing itself—planet, dwarf planet, Pluton, whatever—continues in its orbit as ever. Meanwhile, here on Earth, we’ll hopefully figure out how we want to refer to the lunar program of our own creation, and all the little bits that go into it.


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