The names that NASA gives its spacecraft are often inspirational, borrowing names from Greco-Roman mythology and ships from the Age of Exploration. But as dramatic and on-point as a Mars probe named “Curiosity” may be, NASA is still a government institution and is governed by bureaucratic rules relating to every detail of every space–going mission. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the organization has had naming guidelines since its earliest days.
From the technical to the poetic, all early NASA mission names were first cleared by the Project Designation Committee, Daniel Oberhaus reports for Vice Motherboard. Originally known as the Ad-Hoc Committee to Name Space Projects and Objects, the committee was tasked with developing NASA's first naming protocol for all spacecraft, probes and missions. The protocol includes rules like the following:
Each project name will be a simple euphonic word that will not duplicate or be confused with other NASA or non-NASA project titles. When possible and if appropriate, names will be chosen to reflect NASA's mission. Project names will be serialized when appropriate, thus limiting the number of different names in use at any one time; however, serialization will be used only after successful flight or accomplishment has been achieved.
While this protocol was designed to keep NASA’s project names simple and streamlined, the Project Designation Committee only lasted for two years. As Oberhaus writes, many of NASA’s early missions were pushed back, outright canceled, or continued as part of a mission series, such as the Apollo spacecraft. In the meantime, beginning with Apollo 9, the lunar landers and command modules were given informal codenames by the crewmembers. The two Apollo 9’s were nicknamed “Spider” and “Gumdrop," respectively, while the sections of the Apollo 10 spacecraft were called “Snoopy” and Charlie Brown.”
Even though the Project Designation Committee no longer exists, NASA still uses a similar protocol, although the organization made a few additions in 2000 that specify that mission names should be easy to pronounce and mostly avoid acronyms. These days, it’s up to whoever's in charge of that particular NASA unit to decide whether a name is appropriate or not, Oberhaus writes.
However, in keeping with some of the organization’s inspirational ideals, NASA often reaches out to the public for help naming everything from Mars rovers to planetary features. The last four rovers to explore the Red Planet were all named by students who submitted entries to essay contests, picking the names “Sojourner,” “Spirit,” “Opportunity” and “Curiosity.” More recently, NASA held a public vote in April to choose a naming scheme for any new features or formations identified on Pluto by the New Horizons probe. Following Pluto’s lead, the vote settled on a theme related to the afterlife and underworld, leaving scientists with a list of names from “Meng-p’o” (a Buddhist underworld goddess who helps reincarnated souls forget their past lives) to “Cthulu” (a monstrous, tentacle–faced god from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft) to “Balrog” (a demon cloaked in fire and shadow from J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings), Mika McKinnon writes for io9. While some of these names might have ominous overtones, at least NASA can still have some fun with naming things.