by Chris Tobias
COMMANDER HARKEN: “Seems odd you’d name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of.”
MALCOLM REYNOLDS: “May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”
— Firefly, “Bushwhacked” (2002)
The event that we here at Take Back the Sky and many others in the aerospace community had been eagerly anticipating for close to a decade has finally came to pass. At 3:22pm EDT on May 30, 2020, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and carried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the first private spaceship to take human beings out to the black.
For just shy of eight years we have been doing everything in our power to lobby SpaceX, its CEO and founder Elon Musk and its president and COO Gwynne Shotwell to name the first Crew Dragon after Serenity, the Firefly-class transport ship in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi TV series Firefly and subsequent motion picture Serenity. We created online and paper petitions, hosted panel discussions and tabled at science-fiction and comics conventions and science fairs and maintained a steady social media campaign. We also encouraged members of the space community as well as Browncoats and fans of science-fiction in general to mount a steady letter-writing campaign asking for the name, just as Star Trek fans succeeded in doing in 1976, when it was announced that the first Space Shuttle would be named Enterprise.
As launch day approached, the name of the Crew Dragon remained a closely-guarded secret. Astronauts Behnken and Hurley announced that they had selected a name for their ship, but they would only reveal it the day of the launch. Those of us who were still holding out hope for Serenity were somewhat encouraged when the crew used a plush dinosaur as their zero-G indicator, the object in the cockpit that is traditionally left untethered so it will float when the ship reaches orbit. After all, Serenity’s pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne famously played around with toy dinosaurs while at the helm in the pilot episode of the TV series Firefly. When the crew held their first media event from orbit, however, they welcomed the world aboard Crew Dragon Endeavour, a name they had chosen because it held deep personal significance to both of them since both men had previously gone to space aboard the Space Shuttle of the same name. It was also revealed that the zero-G indicator, a plush apatosaurus named “Trimmer,” was chosen for the flight because both of their sons have an affinity for dinosaurs.
It was hard not to be disappointed when the crew revealed that the ship’s name was Endeavour, not only because it meant that our campaign of 7+ years was unsuccessful, but also because they had chosen what could only be described as a traditional name for such a shiny new class of spaceship. It was also hard to argue with their reasoning though, and at the end of three days of covering #NASASocial events as part #LaunchAmerica and nearly fifteen hours of following launch coverage across two launch dates (the mission had to be scrubbed due to inclement weather on May 27), whatever disappointment we felt was naturally overshadowed by the fact that the NASA Commercial Crew Program had succeeded in returning American astronauts to space from American soil, and we had backed the right horse to do it first in SpaceX. It was also impossible not to be thrilled for Doug Hurley, who won the ultimate game of “Capture the Flag” by being the US astronaut to claim the very same American flag he himself had left aboard the ISS at the end of the final Space Shuttle mission with the understanding that is was to be brought home by the crew of the next US spaceship to dock with the station. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic that had left millions out of work and virtually everyone stuck in quarantine and a week of the most widespread protests and riots the country had seen in decades, the story of Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 flight provided a beacon of light in some very dark times. SpaceX and NASA had given us reason to be hopeful for America.
And yet, that didn’t change the fact that the Crew Dragon was not named Serenity, and that left me asking: “What now?”
THE OPERATIVE: “You’ve done remarkable things. But you’re fighting a war you’ve already lost.”
MALCOLM REYNOLDS: “Well, I’m known for that.”
— Serenity (2005)
After the NASA astronauts concluded their media event, I shut down my computer and went for a walk around my neighborhood. I was able to use that time to think about some of the reasons why our campaign didn’t succeed. While there were myriad reasons that crossed my mind, including the relatively small size and waning interest of the Firefly fan base, in the end I believe we fell victim to three things that really worked against us.
1. Lack of Exposure Where It Counted
Despite our best efforts, we never did manage to gain the kind of exposure that amounts to “going viral.” Some of that was due to the fact that beyond Facebook and Twitter, we weren’t able to take full advantage of social media. We never quite felt comfortable posting on our Instagram page, and we did not explore YouTube as an option to reach folk through video content. Even this site was probably underutilized. Yes, we posted about every SpaceX launch, and we tried to augment that by posting content that was relevant to Firefly as well as science-fiction and spaceflight in general, but in retrospect that content should probably have been coming every other day rather than every other week if we wanted to build the kind of following that would have an impact. After all, as Jeff was fond of saying in panels, “Likes and retweets do not a difference make.” We were lucky if for every ten people who took notice on social media, even just one actually sent a letter to SpaceX, and if that’s true, then we simply never built enough of a following to be effective.
2. Timing That Was Off
The truth is, we were all the rage back in 2013. In our first full year of operation, just two years after SpaceX was selected for the Commercial Crew Program, we were packing convention halls for our panels at Wizard World Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Comicon, and Browncoats were lining up two- and three-deep to sign our petitions at our tables on convention floors. We were guests on podcasts and sci-fi blogs were writing features on us. Our online petition had thousands of signatures, and our website had nearly as many visitors in May of 2013 as it did in all of 2019. Back then, we honestly believed that the launch could happen as early as 2015, but you know how things tend to work in the space industry, and we were just a bit too optimistic for our own good. By 2016, when we presented our last live panel at Wizard World Pittsburgh, we were lucky if we had more than twenty people in attendance. I can’t help but think that the geek community had probably begun to look at us as the Browncoats who cried wolf, and part of me wonders if it might have made a difference if we had kicked off our campaign in September of 2018 instead of September of 2012. If we had, would the timing have been right to give us peak exposure at the most advantageous moment in Crew Dragon’s development?
3. Aiming at the Wrong Target
In 1976, when Star Trek fans were successful in their letter-writing campaign to have the name of the first Space Shuttle changed from Constitution to Enterprise, they directed their letters directly at President Gerald Ford, who then told NASA Administrator James Fletcher that he was “… a little partial to the name Enterprise.”
When we began our campaign in 2012, we decided to aim our letters and petitions at SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. I still believe our reasons for doing this were sound ones, and that it was the right play to make. After all, the Crew Dragon was his company’s ship, and it was being built with his money. He also famously had a connection to “geek culture,” having made his initial fortune in the video game industry and having been the inspiration for the version of Tony Stark that Robert Downey, Jr. made famous in the hugely successful Iron Man films (one of which even featured a cameo by Musk himself). What’s more, the man had already named his company’s booster rocket Falcon in homage to the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars fame.
Later on, we shifted our focus somewhat to SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell after we learned that she had stated publicly that she and a lot of the SpaceX employees who worked under her were big fans of Firefly. But even then, the understanding was that she would be able to convince Elon Musk that Serenity was a good name for the ship, and that SpaceX would decide what the Crew Dragon would be called because it was the company’s vehicle, which they had built and financed.
What we didn’t anticipate was that the Commercial Crew Program would revert to the traditions of the Mercury and Gemini programs and let the NASA astronauts themselves name their ships.
In the end, SpaceX was happy just to name the class of ship Crew Dragon, and the name of the individual capsule was left up to its crew of Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. One factor that may have contributed to this was that unlike the Space Shuttle, which was designed to be flown by multiple crews over many years, the Crew Dragon capsules of the Commercial Crew Program are meant to be flown just once by a single crew, after which they are destined to transport cargo only. That means that each ship is unique to an individual crew, which can claim a sort of “ownership” of the vehicle, signified by their choosing its name.
Of course that would also pose a gigantic challenge to a campaign such as ours, since the individual crews aren’t announced far enough in advance for us to lobby them with a campaign that would have sufficient time to gain momentum. Perhaps if Steven “Swanny” Swanson, the astronaut who took Firefly and Serenity DVD’s to the International Space Station and famously posed for the first selfie in space wearing a Serenity t-shirt, had been chosen for the Commercial Crew Program, we might have had a better chance. Unfortunately for Browncoats, however, he’s retired now.
“There is an answer in a question
And there is hope within despair
And there is beauty in a failure,
And there are depths beyond compare…”
— Death Cab for Cutie, “Black Sun” (2015)
There is no denying that there was a certain beauty in our failure. First and foremost, I found a lifelong friend in Take Back the Sky co-founder Jeff Cunningham, a kindred spirit with whom I have a great deal in common, and a truly good human being. Our years working with Take Back the Sky introduced us to dozens of really wonderful people in the science-fiction community, and we shared tremendous experiences at the many conventions and other events at which we conducted panels, worked tables and engaged in outreach. (If you would have told me eight years ago that I would personally meet four members of the cast of Firefly– Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau, Jewel Staite and Gina Torres– or converse via Twitter with the show’s costume designer, Shawna Trpcic, I would not have believed you.) Our campaign played a role in my being able to visit both Johnson Space Center in Houston and Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which were also unforgettable experiences, and it also helped me check a major item off my “geek bucket list” when we attended Dragon Con in 2015 to participate in a panel on how Browncoats keep the Firefly and Serenity fandom alive.
Jeff is the one who reminds me that there is hope within despair. He really is a rocket scientist, and from the very beginning he has said that a secondary goal of this campaign should be to educate the public and raise awareness of space exploration in general and the emerging private space industry in particular. We do think we achieved that over the years, even if we fell short of our primary goal, and Jeff has made it clear that he intends continue that mission. Jeff and I agree, though, that given the circumstances, it is time to end our campaign. If a SpaceX Crew Dragon, or any spaceship for that matter, ends up being named Serenity, it isn’t likely to be because of any kind of fan-led movement, though that’s not to say it’s never going to happen. There are other ships, after all, and maybe there will come a time when a bit of creative lobbying might once again prove appropriate. At this point, however, we believe it’s time to move on from that idea.
I also believe it’s time for me to take a step back from Take Back the Sky. I’m not walking away entirely, but I have put a lot of my own personal projects on the back burner over the years so I could make sure that every SpaceX launch had coverage on this site and on Twitter, and I think it’s time for me to turn my attention back to some of those. If I make any future appearances at cons, it will be on behalf of Can’t Stop the Serenity or the Rivers & Bridges Brigade of the Pennsylvania Browncoats, or maybe even just as a regular attendee who’s there to enjoy the show (I can’t remember the last time I did that). Jeff has a clearer vision and more of a vested interest in how Take Back the Sky can be used for educational outreach. He has some really good ideas, and I can’t wait to see him bring them to life. As for my future contributions to this site, they will be focused on Firefly– and Serenity-related topics: book and product reviews, Can’t Stop the Serenity, Browncoat Ball, or just general news from the ‘verse. I may even be inclined to expand to other aspects of classic science-fiction. Who knows? Whatever my contributions may be though, I can guarantee you that I will no longer feel any obligation to cover every SpaceX launch on the blog or on Twitter. As Jeff pointed out to me when we spoke recently, we did an excellent job over the years of making people aware of the activities of the Commercial Crew Program in general and SpaceX in particular. (We have been a part of no less than three recent NASA Social events, and our website had a month’s worth of traffic on Demo-2’s launch day alone.) SpaceX is now a household name. They certainly don’t need our promotion anymore.
There are a lot of people I’d like to thank. First and foremost, of course, is Jeff Cunningham, without whom none of this would have been possible, and not far behind are our spouses and families, who showed an abundance of patience and understanding in letting us pursue this dream. Thanks to our ragtag crew who helped us work the tables at the cons: Ed Sauerland, Bob Averell, Randy Tobias, Michael Tobias and Tyler Stay, as well as Matt Black of the PA Browncoats’ Delaware Valley Brigade and Rich and Leslie Maynard of the Browncoats of New York City for their continued support at cons over the years. Thanks to those in internet media who helped boost our signal: Wendy Scott of Sending a Wave, Tricia Ennis at All Geek to Me, Anthony Letizia at Geek Frontiers (formerly Geek Pittsburgh) and Sean Faust of the What Does It Matter? podcast. Thanks to the staff of Wizard World Philadelphia, Pittsburgh Comicon, West Virginia Pop Culture Con, Dragon Con, Wizard World Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Science Center for letting us present panels and/or work tables at their events. Thanks also to D&B Comics for getting us in the door at MegaCon Orlando, and to Elizabeth Miller for providing legitimate scientific expertise in Jeff’s absence at our Wizard World Pittsburgh panel in 2016. Thanks to the organizers of the Can’t Stop the Serenity events in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, who always promoted our campaign and included petitions at their screenings. Thanks to Insight Editions for giving me the opportunity to review their first edition of The Serenity Handbook on this site. And thanks to everyone who was a regular reader of this blog, boosted our signal on Facebook and Twitter, attended our panels at conventions and/or signed our petitions. It was your love that kept us in the air for nearly eight years.
So, as we mark the end of this chapter of Take Back the Sky, I ask you not to consider this a statement of retirement or retreat, but more of a declaration of my intent to execute a tactical withdrawal for a spell. While I bid you farewell for the time being, as Malcolm Reynolds would say, I’ll see you in the world.
Peace, love and rockets…
Co-Founder, Take Back the Sky
Pennsylvania Browncoats, Rivers & Bridges Brigade