Space Age Lingo Is Still in Orbit

Rob Kyff on

As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing blasts off, commentators will surely cite the space program as the launchpad for a huge payload of technologies, from freeze-dried food to memory foam. What's often overlooked are the many NASA terms that achieved ignition and liftoff, and then splashed down to a soft landing in our lexicon where they're still all-systems-go.

Half a century later, Apollo-ese is still A-OK. Congress is launching probes; retro items are rocketing to market reentry; business execs are pursuing mission-critical objectives and shooting for product launch windows; and people are still moonwalking on the dance floor.

Here's a quick flyby of some other NASA nomenclature:

-- Mercury "Marquee": NASA's manned spaceflight program was originally called "Project Astronaut," but President Dwight D. Eisenhower thought the name placed too much focus on the pilot. "Mercury" was suggested by Abe Silverstein, NASA's director of space flight development, because Mercury, the messenger of the gods, was speedy.

-- Apollonian Appellation: In 1960, when NASA began planning a long-range project that would take astronauts to the moon, Silverstein came to the rescue again, proposing "Apollo," after the well-proportioned Greek god of the sun. Silverstein said that the image of Apollo riding his chariot across the sun "was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program."

-- Problematic Problem: After an explosion crippled Apollo 13, no one aboard the spacecraft actually said, "Houston, we have a problem," as actor Tom Hanks did in the 1995 movie. Astronaut Jack Swigert's words were "OK, Houston, we've had a problem here." When mission control asked that the message be repeated, Jim Lovell responded, "Houston, we've had a problem."

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-- Manning Up: From its inception, NASA routinely referred to "manned" and "unmanned" missions. But the arrival of the first female astronauts during the 1980s sparked calls for a gender-neutral term. By 2006, NASA's own style guide directed that "all references to the space program should be non-gender specific."

But what term should replace "manned"? Should we now speak of "peopled," "humaned" or "unrobotic" missions? "Piloted" doesn't really work because some drone spacecraft are piloted from Earth, and "crewed mission" sounds like "crude mission." The Associated Press Stylebook makes no mention of the issue. "Manned" and "unmanned" are still standard.

Houston, we've had a problem here.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2019 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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