Spacecraft Names – Culture, Heroes, Values and Priorities

Fraser: The Planetary Society and JAXA recently collected names for their Hayabusa2 mission to asteroid Ryugu. These will be inscribed onto target markers dropped by the spacecraft, returning home when Hayabusa2 makes landfall.

How and what do spacecraft names mean to us?


Names given to spacecraft typically reflect their creators’ culture, heroes and values; for example a project named Pathfinder celebrates exploration while one named Perseverance emphasizes perseverance.

NASA missions typically include a naming theme, and often welcomes public involvement in this process – from choosing names for rovers on Mars to labelling celestial features discovered by spacecraft.

For instance, The Planetary Society collected names for JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 mission to asteroid Ryugu. These were included on target markers dropped by the spacecraft and placed inside its sample return capsule which returned to Earth in 2020. We also collected names for LightSail 2, an Earth orbit solar sail technology demonstration mission powered by sunlight; these names are currently stored on an embedded microchip on this spacecraft (for more details please listen to our podcast episode dedicated to LightSail 2!)


Spacecraft names reflect the culture, values and heroes of a specific society. Be it named after an Titanic survivor or the rover Curiosity – these spacecraft names bring life to science projects!

NASA has long adhered to rules regarding the naming of spacecraft since its founding. Their history division can serve as an invaluable resource when researching historical naming policies.

Some names for spacecraft draw upon mythology and astrology while others have historic connotations. There are also those based solely on function – like Pegasus satellite which was named for its winged horse like appearance; others such as Voskhod capsule were names after their function: to transport astronauts into orbit up until 1967 until its retirement and Soyuz which still carries crew today and means union in Russian; plus there are those which honor specific individuals such as Galileo named after Italian astronomer Giuseppe Galilei!


No matter the origin or purpose, spacecraft names reveal much about their creators – from an American Apollo rocket or Russian Soyuz capsule, to the Curiosity rover or Lanyue commemorating a return to the moon and Perseverance symbolizing persistence within science.

Patches don’t always reveal hidden meaning, but sometimes there are signs. For instance, the Titan 4 rocket patch features two names – Jack and Walter. While their meaning may not be significant, its number of stars could reflect how many satellites of that type have been launched into orbit since its creation.

America’s early crewed space program Project Mercury allowed astronauts to name their two-man spacecraft and use this name as call signs by CAPCOMs for communications between ground stations and space stations. Russia used similar techniques when assigning callsigns for rockets and spacecraft; their cosmonauts received names more along the lines of pilot call signs than astronauts did.


Names convey a great deal about society and space exploration programs; they bring to mind their culture, values and heroes while visualizing goals such as returning to the moon or exploring our galaxy. Names like Lanyue lunar rover or Nancy Grace Roman space telescope also reflect determination and perseverance required to complete science – two great examples are Lanyue lunar rover or Nancy Grace Roman space telescope.

Many NASA satellites and rovers are named for people, ships or aircraft names, locations or concepts; others follow a more complex naming scheme known as Policy 7620 which establishes guidelines for choosing names for spacecraft. Naming processes have often caused controversy within NASA; an internal memo issued during the 1960s set guidelines on naming procedures for spacecraft.

The Planetary Society partnered with NASA to name the Phoenix lander’s library on Mars using names collected from members of The Planetary Society and recorded on an attached microchip. New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto and Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth in 2015 provided another opportunity for names collection for NASA spacecraft.

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