A Space Station By Any Other Name

Over at Alan Boyle's website, he, with his commenters, is resurrecting an activity in which many have indulged over the years: coming up with a better name for the International Space Station.

When it was first permanently crewed, it was provisionally dubbed (over the grumbling of then-NASA Adminstrator Goldin) as Space Station Alpha. While it's not necessarily a bad idea to name the first of a series with the first letter of the Greek alphabet, ISS isn't our first space station--Skylab was.

In addition, it's not the most propitious of sobriquets. As one commenter points out, "Remember ‘Space 1999’? Do we really want to risk the return of the stylin’ flare pants and platform shoes worn by the crew?"

Someone else suggests naming it after "Sagan or Arthur C. Clarke or Heinlein or Asimov."

Frankly, if I were one of those people (of whom, sadly, only one--Clarke--is still with us), I'd be appalled to have my name attached to this ongoing federal program disaster.

It would particularly be a travesty to sully Heinlein's memory in such a way, because the space station stands in stark and stubborn opposition to almost everything that he believed in life. Recall that he was the man who wrote "The Man Who Sold The Moon," a paen to free enterprise in space. Any random sampling of Lazarus Long's notebooks would find an abundance of quotes indicating just what he would have thought of this malformed creature of bureaucracy and politics (e.g., "Elephant: a mouse built to government specifications...").

Asimov might be a little more appropriate, because he was much more of a collectivist (as was Sagan), but even for him, I think that it would dishonor the memory of someone who had such expansive visions of the future.

In the true spirit of Carl Sagan (who hated manned space flight), one reader suggests:

Instead of Alpha, how about calling it ‘The Great Black Hole’! For the cost of the ISS space station, we could have launched 20 Cassini-and Hubble-sized spacecraft overall. The ISS has literally sucked the life out of planetary science and space exploration.

Of course, as always, this is misleading, because it assumes that if the station hadn't been funded, that the money would have gone to those other purposes, but there's no reason to believe that. The Station got funding for its own reasons, and NASA had no discretion to reallocate those funds to planetary exploration--only Congress can do that. Less money for space stations doesn't mean more money for robotic probes--they have to justify their budgets on their own merit.

But at least, such an appellation comes much closer to truth in advertising.

Most of the other suggestions, like naming it after the science-fiction authors, make an assumption that the station is something worthy of a lofty name--that it actually is a magnificent technological achievement that will be a vital stepping stone to a thrilling human future in space.

There's an old joke about an optimist believing that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist fearing that the optimist is right.

If your mindset is one of believing NASA when they say space is hard, and expensive, and can only be done the way they do it, and that this is the best that can be done with tens of billions of dollars over decades, then you'll look at the station with awe and pride, and want to attach to it a title worthy of that.

But if, like me, you believe that (at least from a perspective of making true progress in space) the present space station program was a tragic mistake--a dead technological end, and a distraction from our true future on the high frontier, you'll want to give it a name that represents that. With the Shuttle and the station, the space agency has driven into an expensive cul de sac from which it seemingly cannot find a way out, and it's one from which expensive, yet functionally trivial programs like an Orbital Space Plane (in whatever form) offer no useful exit.

I believe that the name of the station should reflect its reality. Traditionally, space vehicles have been named for Greek or Trojan gods, but I'd like to depart from tradition and offer up a couple of candidates from English poetry.

After reading these lines from Shelley:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

...it occurred to me that Space Station Ozymandias might be apropos.

But I continue to believe that the most appropriate name for it comes from Coleridge:

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung.

Ladies and gentlemen, that hole in the sky into which we continue to pour our national treasure and dreams, I hereby dub: Space Station Albatross.

I suspect that only when NASA finally lets it sink "like lead into the sea" will they be able to finally get on with actually exploring and developing space.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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