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May 2005

New Horizons Indeed

Name Games

So by mid-January 2001, I gave up on finding an acronym to label our baby. I told the science team to start thinking differently: rather than an acronym, our name would be a brand name for the mission, a slogan capturing the essence of what we were doing in some implicit or explicit way.

I don't have a record of all of the team's subsequent ideas. I wish I had kept a complete list. Nevertheless, each time we had candidate, I'd ask people on the team, as well as family, colleagues and neighbors, what they thought of it — test marketing the brand name, if you will.

Some of those prospective names we came up with and discussed by phone and e-mail included:

  • X, in honor of the search for Planet X that led to the discovery of Pluto, and also honoring the X-planes that pioneered supersonic flight.
  • Tombaugh Explorer, honoring Pluto's discoverer Clyde Tombaugh.
  • New Worlds Explorer, describing what we would be doing.
  • New Frontiers, symbolizing the exploration ethic of a mission to the last unexplored planet and harkening back to John Kennedy's halcyon Apollo era at NASA.
  • One Giant Leap (OGL), linking Neil Armstrong's historic footsteps to our historic journey across the expanse of our solar system.

But these various names, and many others like Outward Bound, High Frontier and Voyager 3, each had their own problems. Most were flawed as evidenced by the bad connotations they suggested to some people ("You can't use 'X' because it connotes that drug, Ecstasy." Or: "Don't use New Frontiers; it was how they referred to Kennedy's space program. " 1 Or: "'One Giant Leap'? Do you mean the mission is a leap of faith?").

Other names were too vague a reference for people ("What is Tombaugh? Is it a Kuiper Belt Object? I thought Pluto was the place you all are going."). As to Voyager 3, the problem was that our PKB competitors at the Jet Propulsion Lab had flown Voyagers 1 and 2, so our choosing Voyager 3 would be like the Chinese calling their first manned space flight Mercury 8.

As January wore on, we were all, frankly, getting tired of the continuing name game. Our project manager at the time, Tom Coughlin, just wanted a name he could call the project as we started to write the proposal. "Just make up something that'll do, it doesn't have to be anything special. People don't know what to call this thing and the proposal is due in less than two months. I'm going to call it 'Stern' until you make up your mind."

"Sheesh," I thought. Here the science team wanted to strike just the right tone, and to simultaneously describe the mission and capture the simple concept that we would be going new places and seeing new things. We wanted to find a name that would be both meaningful and memorable, but it was obvious it was taking too long. I told Tom we would have a name by the beginning of February.

< Part 1: New Horizons Indeed