by Chris Tobias
Since 2012, we at Take Back the Sky have been leading a grassroots effort to convince SpaceX to name the first of its manned space capsules after Serenity, the fictional spaceship from Joss Whedon’s science-fiction television series Firefly and feature film Serenity. Despite the fact that we’ve devoted a lot of space as of late (yes, the pun is intended) to covering the many launches that SpaceX has completed so far this year, we still think it’s important that we not lose sight of our raison d’être. To that end, here are ten good reasons why we believe the first manned SpaceX Dragon should be named Serenity…
10. History is just “life informing art, informing life again.”
One compelling reason to name the next manned US spacecraft Serenity is that the relationship between the realm of fantasy/science-fiction and hard science has always been one of mutual admiration and inspiration. In the words of singer/songwriter Glen Phillips, “It’s life, informing art, informing life again.” Examples of this are myriad, but there is perhaps no better example than the influence of fantasy and science-fiction on the exploration of Mars.
In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed the surface of Mars through the telescope of an observatory in Milan. He catalogued what he believed to be a network of dry riverbeds on the Martian surface, referring to them in his native tongue as canali. In 1894, American businessman and astronomer Percival Lowell, fascinated by Schiaparelli’s work, built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in order to better study the surface of Mars. (This observatory is still in use today, and currently houses a telescope sponsored by the Discovery Channel.) Lowell believed that the “canals” Schiaparelli discovered were actually evidence of a network of waterways used by a dead or dying civilization on Mars in a desperate attempt to generate much-needed irrigation. He published multiple works that detailed this theory. Lowell’s theory has long since been proved incorrect, but it may nevertheless have made a great contribution to the future exploration of Mars.
The author Edgar Rice Burroughs (perhaps most famous for creating the character of Tarzan), was inspired by Lowell’s theory to pen a series of pulp science-fiction novels about a Martian civilization called Barsoom. These novels, which were published between 1917 and 1964, followed the exploits of an American Civil War soldier named John Carter, who is mysteriously transported to Mars and encounters hostile aliens, deadly monsters and exotically beautiful princesses in one adventure after another. While the stories themselves appealed to the public’s thirst for adventure and romance, their popularity was no doubt helped by the fact that they featured cover art that for its time could be described as mildly pornographic. The Barsoom stories are still popular today. In 2012 Disney released a feature film called John Carter of Mars, and there is a series of ongoing comic books about Barsoom published monthly by Dynamite Entertainment. Most important, however, is the fact that Burroughs’ Barsoom stories inspired a whole new generation of science-fiction writers, including Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein. The work of these authors, in turn, attracted a new crop of young men and women who became enthralled with the possibility of life on Mars. Many of these men and women who read Bradbury, Clarke and Heinlein as children grew up to work on the US Mariner and Viking missions to the Red Planet in the mid-1970’s, fulfilling their childhood dreams of joining in the search for life on Mars. Thus, Schiaparelli, Lowell and Burroughs played a part in sending the Viking orbiters and landers to Mars, demonstrating once again that “it’s life, informing art, informing life again.”
9. Fans pulled off a campaign like this once before.
In 1977, fans of Gene Roddenberry’s science-fiction TV series Star Trek proved once again that “geek culture” can influence the direction of hard science. The first US Space Shuttle was to have been named Constitution in honor of the country’s bicentennial, but fans bombarded not only NASA, but also the White House with over 100,000 letters asking that the shuttle be named Enterprise in honor of the starship from Star Trek. The volume of outcry could not be denied, and when the Space Shuttle Enterprise was rolled out for the first time, many of those involved with the show were on hand to see its unveiling.
8. It wouldn’t be the first SpaceX ship named after a ship from science-fiction.
Twenty-five years after Enterprise, in the waning days of the Space Shuttle program, PayPal creator Elon Musk founded his own private space company, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. When the company developed its own rocket booster in 2010, Elon Musk named it the Falcon 9. The number 9 refers to the 9 Merlin engines that power the rocket, but the name “Falcon” is an homage to the Millennium Falcon spaceship in the Star Wars films. For the second time in 33 years, an actual US spacecraft was named for a famous spaceship from pop culture.
More recently, SpaceX named the two drone-piloted barges that are used to recover the first-stage Falcon 9 rocket boosters at sea Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You after two of the sentient, planet-sized Culture starships which appear in Iain M. Banks’ science-fiction novel The Player of Games. Elon Musk also announced that he’ll name SpaceX’s first Mars Colonial Transport ship Heart of Gold, after the ship of the same name in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Given SpaceX’s penchant for naming ships after famous (and even not-so-famous) ships from science-fiction stories, a Crew Dragon named Serenity doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
7. The two ships have some things in common.
If you think about it, the Dragon V2 and Serenity aren’t all that dissimilar. Besides being rugged workhorses, they’re both privately owned, and they’re both transport ships. Malcolm Reynolds’ Serenity is “… a transport ship, Firefly class,” and hauls any cargo between worlds as long as it’ll bring her crew a profit and let them keep flying. Elon Musk’s manned Dragon capsule is designed to haul both crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station, but it also has the capability to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit and “into the black,” just like the ship from Firefly. It seems logical to us that the name Serenity would suit this “transport ship, Dragon class” just as well.
6. The launch of a spaceship named Serenity would be the biggest Browncoat event since the premiere of the “Big Damn Movie.”
Another reason we want to see this happen is that it will be the biggest single event for Browncoats the world over since the premiere of the movie Serenity back in 2005. While we may never see Firefly on-screen again, or a sequel to Serenity, a launch party in Florida (we assume the ship would launch from Launch Complex 39-A at Cape Canaveral) would be a tremendous chance for Browncoats from all over the world to rally once again around one another and the science-fiction story they love. Just imagine: Browncoats from all over the world would come together, swap stories, fly Independents flags, wear coats of a brownish color and share in their love of the universe Joss Whedon created. It’s conceivable that Joss himself might even be there, along with members of the cast and crew from the show and the movie. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting Browncoat event, and of course it would all culminate in the biggest and best fireworks display anyone could ever ask for– the launch of a real spaceship named Serenity! There’s no doubt it would be a mighty fine shindig.
5. It’s a way to honor the creator, cast and crew of Firefly and Serenity.
“You know what the first rule of flyin’ is?” Any Browncoat knows the answer to that question is “Love.” Convincing SpaceX to name their first manned Dragon Serenity is more than just a way to honor Hollywood’s Firefly and Serenity. The very act of lobbying for the name is a love letter to Joss Whedon and the cast and crew who worked so brilliantly to bring these amazing stories and characters to life. They’ve given us something very special. It would be fitting if we could give them a lasting tribute in return.
To be honest, that’s a big reason why we’ve never tried to enlist the help of the cast in this endeavor– even though Nathan Fillion tweeted that he’d like to be Elon Musk’s friend and Adam Baldwin has attended SpaceX launch parties. A real spaceship named Serenity would be our way of saying “thank you” to Joss and his cast and crew. A gift is always more meaningful when it’s a surprise, rather than one you helped pick out yourself.
4. The name Serenity will become part of history.
I am a fan of all forms of science-fiction and fantasy, and I also have a collection of thousands of comic books. I love just about any good story that stimulates my imagination, but when I saw Firefly for the first time, it resonated with me unlike any story before or since. Personally, I would love to see a US spacecraft named Serenity because once she breaks atmo and heads into the black, she becomes a part of history, and no one will ever be able to take that away from us Browncoats. At that point Firefly and Serenity will have a permanent place in the story of US space exploration. My friends and I here at Take Back the Sky want very much to be a part of that, and we hope you do too.
3. Serenity is not just the name of a ship.
What about those folk who aren’t Browncoats? Yes, it may be hard to believe, but they are out there. Why should they want to see a manned US spacecraft named Serenity? Well, it’s important that people realize that the name Serenity is far more than just the name of a ship from a science-fiction television series and motion picture. The name Serenity is a name that calls to mind the concepts of peace and harmony. The word evokes a sense of stillness and oneness with the universe. It does not imply conquest, domination or exploitation in any way. The name Challenger was a very appropriate name for our country’s third space shuttle, but both the US space program and the world itself had very different paradigms in the 1980’s than they do today. In the context of today’s social and political climate, a name like Challenger (or even Dragon Rider, which was the original “working title” of the Dragon V2) might be perceived to have a very different tone. Given the current image of the United States in much of the world, the name Serenity for the next manned American spacecraft would give the US some much-needed positive PR. That fact should not, and really can not, be ignored.
2. NASA won’t mind.
The Commercial Crew Program is a NASA initiative, and if you think about it, in many ways NASA defined what it means to be a geek during the Apollo program. And that definition is one that holds true to this day.
Every crew that does a rotation aboard the International Space Station is called an “expedition.” Usually, for Apollo or shuttle missions, they’d have each crew photographed in group shots in their space suits in front of the American flag. But nowadays, due in part to the advent of digital photography and in part because NASA’s budget isn’t what it once was, they’ve decided to loosen up a bit, so every expedition has their group photo taken in a silly way, usually parodying a well-known film poster. Of course, it was only a matter of time until someone did Star Trek. I don’t know who thought it’d be a good idea to put any of the astronauts in red shirts. Personally, I think I’d rather board a spaceship named Titanic than wear a uniform with a red shirt up there! (Yes, I know the poster was more in reference to Star Trek: the Next Generation, but still…)
And then there’s the one for Expedition 40… with a layout that reminds us of something we’ve seen before.
Make no mistake about it– there are already Browncoats at NASA. In early June of 2007, DVD copies of both Firefly and Serenity were delivered to the International Space Station by the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis during mission STS-117. They were supposed to return to Earth with Atlantis at the end of the mission, but the crew of the ISS refused to give them up! We’re not sure exactly how much downtime the crew has on the ISS, but we know they have at least one good way to spend it.
1. The people at SpaceX who will ultimately name the ship are geeks just like us!
Have you watched any of the live webcasts of SpaceX launches? Have you seen SpaceX’s version of “mission control?” The technicians have a decidedly more relaxed dress code than those at NASA. In fact, it kind of screams The Big Bang Theory. SpaceX’s conference rooms are all named after areographical locations (locations on Mars, as opposed to geographical locations, which are on Earth), pioneers of space and science-fiction authors– including one Arthur C. Clarke, whom they had initially omitted, but added following a fan outcry online. That’s right– SpaceX has its finger on the pulse of what’s going on in geekdom. Heck, they’ve even had their own booth at San Diego Comic-Con the past few years.
When we first went live back in 2012, whedonesque.com did a story on us, which generated an auto-tweet about us late at night. The very first reply, less than 20 minutes later, was by SpaceX themselves!
So, we think it’s safe to say that, as a company at least, they have nothing against the idea. In fact, SpaceX only has one company policy when it comes to naming their hardware, according to former spokesperson Kirstin Grantham, “The rule is, names must be cool.”
And when it comes to cool, at SpaceX it all starts with the founder and CEO, Elon Musk. It’s his money and his ship, and ultimately it’s probably also going to be his decision what to name it. Just who is this guy? We’re talking about a man who was already making a fortune in the computer programming and video game industry before he started PayPal, with which he was responsible for laying part of the foundation of the modern internet. Instead of spending the rest of his days comfortably enjoying his massive earnings, he sold the company and risked everything to start up companies that build electric cars (Tesla), manufacture solar batteries (Solar City) and build rockets in the hopes of furthering space exploration and one day colonizing Mars (SpaceX). And when his rocket company built its first successful rocket, he named it after the Millennium Falcon! If that doesn’t give him geek cred, we don’t know what will!
Writer and director Jon Favreau has openly stated that he based his depiction of Tony Stark in the Iron Man films (as played by Robert Downey, Jr.) on Elon Musk. He even gave Musk a cameo in the second film that most people missed. In the scene in Monaco in Iron Man 2, as they leave the room, Elon Musk (playing himself) congratulates Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) on her promotion, at which point Tony Stark stops and compliments Musk on his work on the Merlin engines that power the Falcon rocket. That’s right, Elon Musk has the blessing of Tony Stark, patron saint of engineers! If there were a Geek Hall of Fame, he would almost certainly get in on the first ballot!
And what’s more, Elon Musk isn’t our only hope. To quote jedi master Yoda, “There is another.” In this case, it’s SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, who has admitted publicly on multiple occasions that Firefly (along with the more recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica) is one of her favorite sci-fi shows! We e-mailed Ms. Shotwell last year to ask if she knew how SpaceX would go about naming its manned Dragon and whose decision it would be. Her response was: “We haven’t traditionally named the individual vehicles but my employees ask about this all the time. So we don’t currently have a process but likely will be figuring it out soon.” When we told her we were hoping the name would be Serenity, her response was: “I love that show! (Firefly!) Good idea.” She even attached a smiley face emoticon! Yes, ladies and menfolk, the company that we are trying to convince to name a ship after Serenity has a president who is a Browncoat!
So, there you have it: ten good reasons why SpaceX should name its first Dragon V2 after Serenity. We hope you’ll agree with most or all of them, and if you do, then we ask that you please write to both Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell to let them know and tell them why. To be honest, it really doesn’t matter how much people “Like” or “Share” what we do online. What will make us mighty is if enough folk take five minutes to write a short, simple, sincere ink-and-paper letter to SpaceX. (If you’ve already written a letter or two, or you find you’re at a loss for words, you could always send them each a “Leaf on the Wind.”) A physical letter (or leaf) in an envelope on a desk at SpaceX will have far more power than clicking something on social media– or even sending an e-mail– ever could.
With the launch of the first manned Dragon tentatively scheduled for 2018, the announcement of the ship’s crew is on the horizon, and once that happens, the announcement of its name can’t be that far behind. That means the time is now for us Browncoats to do the impossible once again!
Peace, love and rockets!