NASA’s first Mars rover was almost given a decidedly non-stellar name: Harriet Tubman. Back in 1996, the space agency held a nationwide student competition to pick a handle for its then-new spacecraft, the only condition being that the name honor a famous woman. Tubman — the heroine of the underground railroad — was a leading vote-getter. Happily, so was civil rights crusader Sojourner Truth. The rover, which was certainly on a soujourn of its own, took her first name instead.
That comedic near-miss was a marked exception in the usually buttoned-up business of deciding what to call NASA’s spaceships. When Apollo 9 flew in 1969, the crew nicknamed their command module and lunar module Gumdrop and Spider — since that is precisely what the ships resembled. Apollo 10 went for the even more playful Charlie Brown and Snoopy. But then NASA’s earnestness police clamped down, and the following Apollo missions went for names like Eagle and Columbia, Yankee Clipper and Intrepid, Odyssey and Aquarius. The two rovers that arrived on Mars in 2004 were similarly called Spirit and Opportunity — presumably because they capture, er, the spirit of opportunity. The one on the way is called Curiosity because … well, you get it.
After so much nominative pretension, there wasn’t much reason to expect any wit when the space agency recently went searching for something interesting to call the two new probes that arrived at the moon on January 1. The ships, currently known by the less-than-scintillating names GRAIL A and GRAIL B, (for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) will spend at least three months in lunar orbit, measuring the way the moon’s lumpy gravity field ever so slightly changes the distance between them. That, in turn, will reveal clues to the lunar innards.
Once again, NASA put out the call to students — but this time the kids delivered in a big way. Nearly 900 classrooms from 45 states submitted bids, but the winners were the fourth-graders of Emily Dickinson Elementary school in Bozeman, Mont., who beautifully, lyrically, wonderfully suggested Ebb and Flow. The names have everything: cultural recognizability, single-syllable simplicity, they’re even easy to spell. What’s more, they perfectly capture the almost fluid nature of the gravity currents the spacecraft went to the moon to study in the first place.
So here’s to you, fourth graders of Emily Dickinson Elementary school in Bozeman, Mont. And while we really, truly, secretly might have preferred Phineas and Ferb, you’ve done your nation proud.
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