SpaceX gives rockets and spacecraft names like Falcon and Merlin

SpaceX gives rockets and spacecraft names like Falcon and Merlin

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SpaceX is the undisputed rock star of the Space Coast’s commercial launch boom. Their social media plays a role. Video posted Feb. 19, 2017
Rachael L Thomas, FLORIDA TODAY

Space exploration is serious business.

Missions cost tens of millions of dollars and frequently put human lives on the line. That’s probably why rockets and spacecraft tend to have serious-sounding names.

Atlas, Saturn, Delta, Soyuz (which means “union” in Russian), and a host of other space-faring machines have some authoritative names.

Then there’s SpaceX.

On the commercial space scene, SpaceX is the kid who rolls around on a skateboard, always sits in the back of the classroom, and still makes straight A’s.

The company makes a point of reminding the world that space is still fun – because we all wanted to be astronauts as kids. And they name their gadgets like enthusiastic eighth graders.

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Here’s a rundown of SpaceX’s fancifully-titled inventions:

Falcon rockets

Okay, so outwardly this one seems tame. Falcons are majestic birds, after all. But there’s more. “Falcon” comes from the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars fame.

Yep, that multi-million-dollar piece of high technology designed to ferry equally pricey gizmos into orbit (and beyond!) is named for a fictional spaceship that “once made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”

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SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is a known science fiction fan so it’s no surprise the company’s flagship rocket is named for the gold standard of sci-fi spaceships. There’s a whole family of Falcon rockets, including the super heavy-lift Falcon Heavy.

Until recently, the great big launch system that Musk says will be able to carry 100 astronauts to Mars was called the Big Falcon Rocket. But that name has recently changed to simply “Starship.”

Merlin rocket engines

If you’re thinking of King Arthur’s wizard buddy, you’re a little off. While this one sounds like it’s straight out of a 13-year-old’s game, it’s actually named for another bird.

A merlin is a variety of medium-sized falcon. Since the Merlin engine is currently used to power Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, that fits nicely. SpaceX’s other rocket engines have equally avian monikers: Kestrel and Raptor.

The Dragon capsule

With another name that sounds like it was ripped from the pages of a fantasy novel, the Dragon capsule and Dragon 2 conjure images of fire-breathing beasts. According to Musk, though, the name is grounded in reality.

“Was originally called Puff the Magic Dragon, as people said I was high if thought it could work, so I named it after their insult,” he said on Twitter in 2018.

That’s right, the Dragon capsule was named for a Peter, Paul and Mary song about a boy and an imaginary dragon that has long been associated with smoking marijuana. It was also a public clap back at SpaceX doubters.

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Take a look at the science experiments being launched on SpaceXs Dragon cargo spacecraft for its 17th Commercial Resupply Services mission to the International Space Station.
NASA

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If these colorful names have you scratching your head, you’re not alone. SpaceX’s fleet of drone ships are named to honor the science fiction author Ian M. Banks. Specifically, his novel The Player of Games, in which OCISLY and JRtI are sentient spaceships.

The ships have whimsical names but their jobs are important. When SpaceX wants to land a rocket booster stage and the launch trajectory takes it too far over the ocean to land the booster at the landing site on solid ground, the autonomous barges head out to sea to serve as floating landing sites.

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Another ship, which will be called “A Shortfall of Gravitas,” is currently under construction. The name is another reference to Banks’ work.

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