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« An Imaginary Race | Main | Speed Doesn't Kill »

Dishonoring Great Men

Over at Alan Boyle's site, he, with his commenters, is resurrecting an activity in which many have indulged over the years: coming up with a name for the ISS that doesn't suck (as does, for example, Alpha). 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 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 is still with us), I'd be appalled to have my name attached to this ongoing 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., "An elephant is 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 Sagan, 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. 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.

Still, he has a good point, and at least it comes much closer to truth in advertising.

Most of the other suggestions 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 a worthy apellation to it.

But if, like me, you believe that (at least from a perspective of making true progress in space) the space station program was a tragic mistake--a dead technological end, and a distraction from our true future, 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 programs like an Orbital Space Plane (in whatever form) offer no exit.

I believe that the name of the station should reflect its reality, and from that viewpoint, 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.

Thus, I offer up what I consider the most appropriate name for that hole in the sky into which we continue to pour money and dreams: Space Station Albatross.

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

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 25, 2003 08:15 AM
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It's too bad we don't know the name of The Bellman's ship from "The Hunting of the Snark." That would be most appropriate.

(We do know he bought a map without least vestige of land because he knew that was a map his whole crew would understand.)

Posted by Raoul Ortega at June 25, 2003 09:02 AM

As for Sagan, it would appropriate to name that thing after someone who loathed manned spaceflight. Although his estate will probably sue, forcing NASA to rename it "Butt Head Astronomer", or BHA for short.

Posted by Raoul Ortega at June 25, 2003 09:11 AM

This somehow recalls the great Monty Python's Flying Circus bit, "Prejudice" -- with a contest for rude things to call the Belgians.

"Let's not call them anything, let's just ignore them."

If we ignore the ISS, Rand, do you suppose it will go away?

Posted by Andrew at June 25, 2003 10:19 AM

Raoul, You are wrong to suggest Sagan 'loathed manned spaceflight.' Consider the subtitle of his bookPale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Consider his book Cosmos, which ends with a call for building 'a significant human presence on other worlds.' Consider Sagan's positive blurb on the back cover of Zubrin's The Case for Mars.

Sagan was actually distinct from many astronomers in not loathing manned spaceflight.

Posted by Ken Silber at June 25, 2003 11:55 AM

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

I disagree.

NASA will be still fighting to keep the albatross flying and being supported by the OSP, while Bezos is funding the construction of The Hilton - Luna.


Posted by Bob at June 25, 2003 12:51 PM

A long running joke for some of the people who have worked on the Space Station Program, was to rename it SNAFUBAR.

Posted by Rex Graves at June 25, 2003 01:20 PM

Before we get carried away with Lazarus Long.

We should remember he travelled in time, slept with his mother and had sex with clones of himself.

Posted by Dave at June 25, 2003 07:07 PM

For the older of us who might remember the days of Apollo, let's name it after NASA's Senatoral nemesis... Proxmeyer, I think it was... Senator William Proxmeyer, the bestower of the great Golden Fleece Awards for wasteful government spending. However, let us not forget, the faults of the ISS are not entirely due to NASA's efforts, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Posted by R Mike Smith at June 25, 2003 09:28 PM

"Besides, this isn't just a more interesting world, it's safer too. Admiral Heinlein doesn't let the Soviets build spacecraft."

- Larry Niven, "The Return of William Proxmire", 1988.

Posted by Andrew at June 25, 2003 10:52 PM

How about naming that orbital icon of collectivist elitism the Ozymandius?

Posted by Alan K. Henderson at June 25, 2003 11:13 PM

We should remember he travelled in time, slept with his mother and had sex with clones of himself.

You say that like it's a bad thing...

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 25, 2003 11:48 PM

I'm just liking the acronym for Albatross Space Station ...

Posted by Jay Manifold at June 26, 2003 04:24 AM

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

My beef is this de-orbiting of stuff we stop using. After spending all that money to get it up there we should bloody well keep it off-planet. It's raw materials on the hoof that've already been boosted. There may not be a use for it today, but it's likely to be useful to someone, somewhere down the road.

We hang onto old aircraft for parts (Davis-Monthan AFB) and they're lots cheaper. Perhaps establish a 'junk orbit' and move stuff to that orbit when no longer being used, or establish a couple of junk satellites that old stuff gets moved to.

There's a potential business for someone, intraorbital trash collection, salvage rights, anyone?

Posted by John S Allison at June 26, 2003 07:10 AM

John, I was speaking metaphorically, not literally.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 26, 2003 07:29 AM

Yeah, ISS has plenty of solar panels, i'd estimate sufficient for solar power sat test. What are they selling for ?

Posted by at June 26, 2003 07:31 AM

>>Yeah, ISS has plenty of solar panels, i'd estimate >>sufficient for solar power sat test. What are they >>selling for ?

FOB LEO? Enough that the materials cost is negligible, I'd wager.


Posted by A W at June 26, 2003 08:45 AM

Understood, but burning up perfectly good paid for junk is an idea that needs to die ;) Heck, torching the shuttle's external tank frosts my capn crunch

Hmmmmmm, y'know, if I could figure out a way to get someone to throw gobs of cash my way for Automagic Space Sweepers, Inc....

Posted by John S Allison at June 26, 2003 11:43 AM

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