What’s in a Name?

Calling out ULA’s new rocket


United Launch Alliance (ULA) has a new rocket on the drawing board, seen by many as a reaction to SpaceX’s relatively recent threat to the company’s core business launching government satellites. And as of yesterday, the new launcher has a name: Vulcan.

Like any complex machine or major undertaking—and rockets are both—a name is a way to characterize the thing and all it represents. Vulcan arrives with great expectations: If all goes according to plan, ULA’s new launcher will replace Atlas and Delta to deliver the most critical of scientific and national security payloads to orbit. The name Vulcan pays homage to the Roman god of fire and volcanoes, a fitting tribute given the spectacular launch display. The name also alludes to the Star Trek TV series that inspired an interest in space for untold numbers of people.

In a bow to public involvement, ULA arrived at the name after letting the public vote among five potential names: Vulcan, Eagle, Freedom, Galaxy One and Zeus. All nice choices, representing admirable qualities. They also read like pure marketing, and unintentionally signal that ULA—and the space industry in general—is in a creative rut.

In fact, the name Vulcan is already taken. ULA’s European equivalent and competitor, Arianespace, uses the name Vulcain (Vulcan in French) for the main engine of its Ariane 5. Vulcan is also the name of billionaire Paul Allen’s investment company, which was deeply involved in the SpaceShipOne program and is currently working on its own Stratolaunch airborne launch system. After Monday’s announcement, Allen threatened ULA with a trademark violation lawsuit.

Greek and Roman mythology has long been a source of names for space hardware. Vulcan will replace Atlas (named for a mythological Greek character) and Delta (fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, and the symbol denoting ‘change’ in scientific calculations). Zeus is the Greek god of the sky and ruler of the empyrean realm of Mt. Olympus. It too has been used as an aerospace name; Masten Space System’s Xeus is a direct reference to the same god, cheekily spelled with an ‘X’ to keep in line with the company’s naming convention of starting everything with an X.

The non-Greek names are even less innovative. Difficult though it is not to be cynical about a name like Freedom, ATK’s idea for its losing commercial crew flight bid was the equally groanworthy Liberty (powered by Arianespace’s Vulcain engine). Eagle, of course, also has a patriotic ring, and Falcon has been used for many projects, including SpaceX’s rocket. The name Galaxy One evokes Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne/Two, but must have posed something of a PR dilemma, since the latter won’t reach orbit.

Unfortunately, despite running out of traditional semi-benevolent Greek gods, there seems to be little appetite for trying new naming conventions. And even though ULA intended the moniker to reflect the immensity of its commitment, it comes off as unimaginative.

Still, occasionally a new name slips through. ULA’s (Vulcan-funded) competitor Stratolaunch is building an enormous air-launch prototype that goes by the name of Roc, after the giant bird of prey described in Arabic myths. Not so unconventional, but at least it’s not Greek.

Vulcan: America's Next Generation Launch System

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