15 September 2016

Naming the Space Station (1988)

The 1982 "Space Platform" was the Station design President Ronald Reagan displayed to leaders of prospective Space Station International Partner nations in 1984. Image credit: NASA
On 12 April 1988, James Odom, NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Station, sent out a memorandum with two attachments to a long distribution list. Recipients included NASA Administrator James Fletcher, Deputy, Associate, and Assistant Administrators at NASA Headquarters, the NASA Inspector General, the NASA Chief Scientist, the nine NASA field center Directors, Public Affairs Officers across the agency, the six field center Space Station Project Offices, and representatives of the Space Station International Partners (Canada, the European Space Agency, and Japan). The memo's subject line summed up its purpose succinctly: it was called "Naming the Space Station."

Odom explained that the Space Station President Ronald Reagan had called upon NASA to build in his State of the Union Address of 25 January 1984 was about to enter its "development phase," so the time was ripe to decide on a name for it. He attached a NASA Management Instruction laying out guidelines for naming NASA projects and, more interestingly, a list of 16 names suggested by a Space Station Name Committee he had appointed. Each name included a brief rationale.

The naming rules were straightforward. Candidate names were to be simple and easily pronounced, not refer to living persons, neither duplicate nor closely resemble other NASA or non-NASA space program names, be translatable into the languages of the International Partners, and have neither ambiguous nor offensive meanings in the International Partner languages. In addition, acronyms were to be avoided. The naming process was not to be revealed to the public; if, however, members of the public happened to submit names that followed the rules, the Name Committee would consider them.

NASA's 1985 "Power Tower" Space Station configuration included hangars for space tugs and satellite servicing, a laboratory, a free-flyer providing an enhanced microgravity environment, and zenith- and nadir-pointing truss-type platforms for instruments. Image credit: NASA
Several of the Name Committee's 16 names sought a return to the Greco-Roman mythology naming tradition of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Hercules was, its rationale explained, an appropriate name for the Space Station because the mythical hero was "a symbol of extraordinary strength. . . who won immortality by performing 12 labors." Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom and learning; Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn. Jupiter, the greatest Roman god, was a candidate name; the Name Committee explained, however, that it was meant to refer to the Solar System's largest planet, and that it was "symbolic of mankind's greatest adventure, the exploration of space."

Pegasus was suggested because the Space Station would "dwell among the stars" like "the winged horse who ascended into Heaven." Olympia referred to the sacred grove where ancient Greece held its Olympic Games; the name was meant to invoke the spirit of international cooperation.

Another proposed 1985 NASA Space Station design provided ample room for hangars and attached payloads, as well as a simplified track arrangement for the Station's mobile platform-mounted robot arm. The Station's electricity-generating solar arrays, steerable only by moving the entire Station, cover its zenith-facing side. Image credit: NASA
Two names, Earth-Star and Starlight, referred to the Station's likely bright star-like appearance in the skies of Earth, while another, Skybase, was said to build on "the tradition of Skylab," the first U.S. space station, which had reached orbit in May 1973. Landmark was suggested because the Space Station Program would constitute a "landmark" in the history of the NASA spaceflight. Pilgrim referred to outer space settlement, and the rationale for Prospector declared that the Space Station would "serve as a base for exploration of space for natural deposits."

This last Station function must have come as a surprise to many on Odom's distribution list, for the Space Station was meant to serve as a laboratory; before 1988 it had lost essentially all of its transportation node capabilities, so had little hope of ever playing a significant role in the development of space resources. NASA planners, meanwhile, had moved toward the concept of a separate transportation node space station. They believed (with good reason) that separating transportation and laboratory functions would result in two stations with optimized designs.

Other names – Freedom, Independence, Liberty, and Unity – advertised U.S. political values, and thus followed Soviet convention. ("Soyuz," for example, means "Union," which refers to the multi-modular nature of the Soyuz spacecraft, but also to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.) Liberty also referred to breaking "the bond of Earth's gravitational pull," Unity to international cooperation, and Independence to “man’s first permanent step to be 'independent' of Earth."

Freedom, the Name Committee explained, was appropriate because the Space Station would "provide scientific and technological 'freedom' to explore avenues of research," as well as freedom "from the confines of gravity." In addition, freedom was "a political value central to all of the Space Station's international partners."

In his memorandum, Odom explained that names submitted to the Space Station Name Committee would be given to the NASA Administrator, who would make the final selection. In the end, though, the list of candidate names landed on President Reagan's desk. On 18 July 1988, NASA announced that he had selected the name Space Station Freedom.

Space Station Freedom - sometimes referred to as Space Station "Fred" due to its much-reduced size and capabilities - in 1991. Image credit: NASA
Despite Odom's assertion that it would soon enter development, Space Station Freedom underwent repeated redesigns to reduce cost and complexity and narrowly dodged cancellation. In mid-1993, new President William Clinton ordered a comprehensive review of the U.S. space station program, a management overhaul, and a redesign based on one of three options, designated A, B, and C. In November 1993, Clinton selected Option A, a pruned-back version of Freedom that became known as Alpha. (One might speculate, none too seriously, that had Option B been selected, the station would have been called Beta.)

During his single term in office, President George H. W. Bush, Clinton's predecessor, had concluded agreements first with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then with Russian President Boris Yeltsin that called for, among other things, use of the Soyuz spacecraft as a Space Station Freedom lifeboat. Bush had stopped short of giving the Russians a central role in the NASA station; nevertheless, he laid groundwork for things to come.

President Clinton's decision to accept the Russian invitation to combine Alpha and Mir-2 had its critics. Nevertheless, the move created a geopolitical rationale that ensured broad Congressional support for the station for the first time. The combined space station would keep Russian rocketeers occupied so that they would not peddle their missile-manufacturing services internationally. In terms of space operations, the merger amounted to what was probably the first instance of Earth-orbital barter: the Russian segment would provide orbit-maintenance propulsion and early staffing in exchange for abundant electricity from the U.S. segment's enormous truss-mounted steerable solar arrays.

The International Space Station in August 2005. Image credit: NASA
For a time, the combined U.S.-Russian station was jokingly referred to as "Ralpha," for "Russian Alpha," which at least had the advantage of being distinctive. Ultimately, however, NASA and its partners settled on the prosaic name International Space Station (ISS).

Following (mainly) Russian tradition, individual ISS modules have received names. The Mir-2 core module, a small independent space station NASA referred to as the "Service Module," was named Zvezda ("Star"), while the first U.S. component, Node 1 – a module designed as an attachment point for other modules – was dubbed Unity for reasons similar to those given by the 1988 Name Committee. Other names include Zarya ("Dawn") for the FGB propulsion and storage module, the first ISS component launched; Destiny for the U.S. Lab Module; Kibo ("Hope") for the Japanese lab; and Columbus for the European lab.

The International Space Station in 2011. Image credit: NASA

Memorandum with attachments, S/Associate Administrator for Space Station to Distribution, Naming the Space Station, 12 April 1988

More Information

NASA's 1992 Plan to Land Soyuz Space Station Lifeboats in Australia

Skylab-Salyut Space Laboratory (1972)

He Who Controls the Moon Controls the Earth (1958)


  1. I'm currently writing an alternate space history where the space shuttle is canned by Nixon's OMB late 1971 I've picked the name "Liberty" for America space station launched and build in the 80's. It was a hint at Freedom.


    I appreciate that blog entry, very interesting to see alternatives to "Freedom" or the bland ISS.

    1. Wow - you AH makes mine look bare-bones. You've got a huge amount of detail there! I'm not ashamed, however, because this is meant to be a history blog. Or maybe I'm only a little bit ashamed. :-)


  2. Do the astronauts have their own slang pet names for the ISS?

    1. I do not know. I haven't heard of any.


  3. In Neal Stephenson's "Seveneves" the ISS has the nickname 'Izzy' (and gained a rotating torus one one end, and a iron asteroid on the other).

    1. What did you think of SEVENEVES? I'm finally reading his ANATHEM - a delightfully peculiar book.



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