Friday, 12 October 2012

Astronyms, part 5: The Shuttles and the ISS

This is part of this series of posts on the history of spacecraft naming.

Space Shuttle Orbiter
(Space plane. In space service 12 April 1981 to 21 July 2011)

Space Shuttle Orbiter


The Space Shuttle Orbiter, more commonly but incorrectly/informally called just 'space shuttle' or 'shuttle', was the central space plane component of the Space Shuttle (which more correctly refers to the entire launch system, including the big external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters). By the 21st century, we'd become pretty jaded about the Orbiter, but try to put yourself back in the mid-1970s, when it was still being developed: Everything until then had been a dinky space condom, 100% disposed after each use, fitting no more than 3 pretty damn cramped people at a time, small enough to fit inside a large-ish two-car garage, landing at some fairly unpredictable spot in the damn ocean or a muddy field in the Kazakh steppes, dangling crudely under parachutes. Then along comes a fucking great jet-looking thing, with seats for 7 (and so much more leg room!), an enclosed cargo bay big enough to fit an entire Apollo CSM and LM pair (or 3 or 4 Soyuzes, or a million Vostoks), yet with the precision to land comfortably on a given runway, and then you could use almost the whole thing again and again and again! It really must have seemed like a massive leap forward.

Counting against it, unfortunately, were some serious flaws, some apparent from the start, some only emerging over time. They gave unexpectedly poor economy and were harder and slower to maintain than hoped. They couldn't get beyond a low Earth orbit, less far from Earth than the Apollos or even Geminis could. And their safety record was horrible, with two destroyed in horrible accidents, partly due to awkward design limits, partly due to terrible mismanagement, as well as a long history of bits falling off in less catastrophic ways. The whole thing was a size and shape that NASA hadn't actually wanted, but was forced to accept because the US Air Force wanted a big reusable launcher for secretly putting big spy satellites in orbit. In the end, the USAF didn't really use the shuttle for that often (opting for cheaper conventional rockets and little uncrewed jobs instead) and NASA seldom needed the full launch capability they had, since construction of the International Space Station, probably the shuttle's greatest project, only began when the shuttle was 20 years old already. It was, in a lot of ways, a bit disappointing, largely because nothing was ever done to really build on it. It should have been an interesting prototype, perhaps more like the X-15 or the cancelled X-20, from which both smaller science space planes and larger cargo space planes and so on could be developed. Instead, its career was dragged out and constantly uncertain. But I guess that's a good metaphor for the whole of post-Apollo human spaceflight.

Anyway, names! Space Shuttle, Space Shuttle Orbiter, Solid Rocket Booster and External Fuel Tank are all pretty descriptive, but so, so very bland. It seems like NASA lost its passion for naming things properly as the rest of the US lost interest in the space race. Skylab was already a little bit of lame name compared with Apollo, but Space Shuttle Orbiter isn't even a name, it's just a description. It feels wrong treating it like a proper noun. Fortunately, someone at least decided that the individual vessels should each get unique names, chosen in a serious, sombre, but at least interesting manner.

They already had production numbers, in the format OV-0xx or OV-1yy, where OV stands for Orbiter Vehicle, xx is a descending number starting at 99 and y ascends from 01, with the '-1' intended to represent an actual, flying vehicle and '-0' a non-flying ground-test hull, until they turned STA-099 (standing for Structural Test Article) into the flying OV-099 without giving it a new OV-1xx number. In principle, they might also have had OV-2zz and OV-3ww numbers for future advanced versions, but never changed the orbiter's design significantly enough to warrant that. Compare this with the very complex Mercury production numbers like "7"; I believe in bureaucratese, that's considered progress. Fortunately, NASA's inflexibility with production numbers at least makes it very easy to tie any number and unique name together.

The first shuttle, OV-101, was to be called Constitution, after the still-fucking-sailing US Navy frigate that was among the first vessels commissioned by the new Navy when it formed in the late 18th century. But Trekkies, who hadn't been much of a coherent demographic until the late '70s (I guess it was slower and took more dedication being organised fans of something before the internet), suddenly got it in their heads that it should be Enterprise instead. And there were a lot of them. And many of them were NASA employees. And some of the older, more senior NASA employees had served on the WWII carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6). There might also have been a little extra bit of input from the then-new nuclear-powered carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65). And so, OV-101 became the shuttle Enterprise. And it never went into space. Sigh.

[Edit: Some newly released documents confirm that's pretty much exactly how Enterprise got its name.]

The actual spacey space shuttles, in order of first space flight, were:
  • OV-102 Columbia. 28 flights from 12 April 1981 to 1 February 2003. Destroyed on re-entry during the 28th. Named after an exploratory sailing ship and the poetic name for America. Although it's inevitable that the Apollo 11 CSM of the same name was in mind when this one was chosen, it seems that they reached the same name from different roots.
  • OV-099 Challenger. 9 flights from 4 April 1983 to 6 November 1985. Destroyed on launch of what would have been 10th flight, 28 January 1986. Like the Apollo 17 LM, it was named after the HMS Challenger and its Challenger Expedition, an early major exercise in oceanography.
  • OV-103 Discovery. 39 flights from 30 August 1984 to 9 March 2011. Named after four sailing ships, primarily James Cook's last ship, the HMS Discovery, but also Henry Hudson's colonisation and exploration ship Discovery, George Nares's Arctic explorer HMS Discovery, and Scott and Shackleton's Antarctic explorer RRS Discovery of the Discovery Expedition. Frankly, I can't think of a better name for a science and exploration vessel; it's a sentiment, a goal, a boast, and to my ears it's also a nice-sounding name.
  • OV-104 Atlantis. 33 flights from 3 October 1985 to 21 July 2011. Named after RV Atlantis, first research ship of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Am I the only one who finds the name Woods Hole pretty damn funny?
  • OV-105 Endeavour. 25 flights from 7 May 1992 to 1 June 2011. Like the Apollo 15 CSM, it was named after James Cook's first exploratory ship, the HMS Endeavour.
I count a total of 134 flights into space there. I think they were originally aiming to get at least double that many by the time the shuttles retired, but it's still not a bad number, and will exceed even the whole Soyuz family's total number of flights for several more years.

I'm quite glad Constitution wasn't used, as it could have set a precendent of giving the shuttles ugly, exclusionary US nationalism-themed names. Instead, with the set actually used, you end up with a pretty decent theme there of shuttles named after famous research and exploration sailing ships, with some ties back to the previous generation of Apollo CSMs and LMs. I'm personally in favour of looking for new, more original or at least more intentionally-chosen names, but if you are going to recycle old names, then this is a pretty good way of doing so. It also shows that impersonal naming committees made up of people who'll probably never ride the vessels themselves don't have to settle on bland-shit names like Space Shuttle Orbiter and International Space Station every time.

[EDIT: I've just come across this 1972 White House memo, trying to get the shuttle a new name before it went into production. It seems some people were thinking about proper names, but Nixon fucked it up by disregarding the suggestions. Fucking Nixon. Anyway, the possible class names listed there are Space Clipper, Pegasus and Starlighter. I like Pegasus most, and just don't get Starlighter at all. If it had been Space Clipper, the first of the class (OV-101?) would likely have been named Yankee Clipper, same as the Apollo 12 CSM. Still a historic ships theme and possibly the root of the actual naming theme.]

International Space Station
(Space station. In space service 2 November 2000 to present)
International Space Station with Soyuz and Progress docked


Our greatest defence against the Borg, often abbreviated to ISS. This thing is really vast compared with everything we've had before it (just look at this comparison), but admittedly a lot of it is uninhabitable, especially those giant solar panels. Remove those and you're back to about the size of Mir, and with no single module as big as the girthy Skylab. Still, the solar panels are there, and so is the 100m-or-so truss they sit on, and the whole thing is apparently big enough to make it the second brightest object in the night sky, after the Moon, though I've never been able to spot it myself. Stupid city living.

International Space Station is a crap name. Like Space Shuttle Orbiter, it's just a literal description, nothing better.The first crew to arrive on board did try to give it the new radio call sign of Alpha, but they made it clear that they intended it as a full, permanent name for the station. This annoyed Russian management, who would have preferred something like Mir-2 or something similarly uncreative (the Russian cosmonaut on Expedition 1, Sergei Krikalev, seems to have been happy with Alpha). Space Station Alpha had been the name of a planned US design that was later folded into the ISS mix, and it seems Russia felt it unfair to pick a name implying all their past stations hadn't counted. As a result, it's pretty hard to find references to the station as Alpha much beyond 2001. I've seen one astronaut call it that in a 2006 interview and the ham radio crowd may still use it from time to time, sometimes in the form of ISS Alpha. But absolutely every official source today is void of the name Alpha, wasting everyone's time with bloody long and boring International Space Station instead. I have few strong feelings about the name Alpha - it's a bit bland without context, but not awful - but at least it's a real name. I might buy that it could represent a fresh start for human spaceflight, a chance to start over in a cooperative way and put aside the Cold War competitiveness of the Space Race, but that's just my own thought; I have no idea why NASA actually picked it. That interpretation is spoiled quite a bit by the exclusion of China, which led to the separate development of a Chinese station program.

Like Mir, the ISS is made of lots of modules, which each have their own names, so there at least is a bit more to discuss. The pressurised (inhabitable) modules are:
  • Zarya (meaning "dawn") or Functional Cargo Block
  • Unity or Node 1
  • Zvezda ("star") or Service Module (mentioned previously, basically an upgraded Salyut)
  • Destiny
  • Quest Joint Airlock or Joint Airlock Module
  • Pirs ("pier") or Docking Module 1
  • Harmony or Node 2
  • Columbus
  • Poisk ("search") or Mini-Research Module 2 (formerly Docking Module 2)
  • Tranquility or Node 3 (which should rightly have been Colbert, or at least Serenity)
  • The Cupola
  • Kibo ("hope") or Japanese Experiment Module
  • Rassvet (also "dawn") or Mini-Research Module 2 (formerly Docking Cargo Module)
  • Leonardo (formerly temporary, now permanent) or Permanent Multipurpose Module (formerly Multi-Purpose Logistics Module 1)
  • Raffaello (temporary) or Multi-Purpose Logistics Module 2
In addition, there's the truss or Integrated Truss Structure, made up of 12 modules, numbered according to their position. One of them, the Z1 truss segment, has some pressurized space, but the rest are just cold support structures. There are also some robotic arms and unpressurized modules, but I'll skip them for now, since too many of them are annoying backronyms. There are several planned additions, but many additions are cancelled before they ever launch.

The whole thing is a messy jumble, representing the fact that a lot of these modules had originally been intended for several separate national or slightly-less-international stations, before international agreement unified them here. The Russian modules have a weird scattering of unrelated names, and I don't know why two of them both translate as "dawn". The American modules have a clear theme of abstract states of being ending in Y. The European modules are named after dead old white guys (or possibly teenage mutant green guys; see official MPLM patch below). And the Japanese module kind of fits in with the abstract sentiments of the US modules. Taken together as a whole, it's not a great use of names, there's no apparent logic to it and I'd probably be happier if they'd kept to plain, literal names for the individual modules and saved their creative juices for the station as a whole.

Logo for the Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules Leonardo, Raffaello and the unused Donatello.