The real “Apollo 2,” Saturn 1B AS-203, was an unmanned mission that never landed. The rocket exploded in orbit. (image: Wikipedia)
by Chris Tobias
I thought I’d share a humorous little anecdote that is probably indicative of what the average American knows about our legacy in space. Before I do that, though, allow me to set the scene.
I am a high school teacher by trade, as are my two brothers and my youngest brother’s wife. For whatever reason, teaching runs in my family.
When you’re a teacher, one of the things that goes with the territory is unexpected days off. This week the Polar Vortex that has struck much of the country left most schools in our city closed for two consecutive days, something that the kids probably enjoy much more than the teachers, who have to figure out how to get their curricula back on track despite the lost instructional time. That said, we teachers are certainly not above trying to make the most of a sudden “mid-week weekend.”
This past Tuesday, my youngest brother Michael, who like his wife teaches high school English, talked me into going to Trivia Night at a local bar because school had already been cancelled for Wednesday due to the extreme cold. “You can sleep in Wednesday morning,” he said, “Come out and have some fun.”
I have to be honest– I don’t really like these trivia nights. The guy who runs them has all kinds of errors in his questions, and that damages my calm. For example, one question he asked recently was “Which birds are flightless?” along with these choices:
e) all of them
I immediately cried shenanigans, of course, because A through D are all correct, but E implies that every bird on the planet is flightless! “Calm down, language guy,” I heard from the rest of my team. But seriously, how hard is it to say “all of the above?!”
He also has the nasty habit of denying you a point for identifying a song that you obviously know without using the exact title down to the letter. For example, “Big Money” by Rush wouldn’t get you a point because the song’s official name on the album is “The Big Money.” I mean, come on! All Rush fans call it “Big Money,” just like they all say “Spirit of Radio” even though that song title does have the definite article in front of it.
You get my point.
But I know it means a lot to my brother for us to spend time together doing stuff like this, and the team’s captain is an old friend of mine from high school, so I go from time to time. Tuesday night I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go (other than the ice and snow, but hey, I’m a Northerner), so I went.
During the true/false section of Tuesday’s contest, “Trivia Joe” asked the following question (this is exactly how it appeared on the screen):
“Apollo II had just 20 seconds of fuel left when it landed. True or false?”
But he read the question as: “Apollo 2 had just 20 seconds of fuel left when it landed. True or false?” Well, when I heard Apollo 2 and saw the roman numeral II on the board, I immediately said to myself, “This is a trick.” I confidently told my team it was false.
Joe’s M.O. is to put the answers up on the screen at the end of the round while he tallies the points for each team. Then he reviews the answers after he returns the teams’ score sheets. Well, when the answers flashed on the screen, the answer to the Apollo question was listed as “True.”
I’d had enough.
Joe was still busy tallying the points for the round, so I went up to talk to him and engaged him in the following conversation:
“Hey, Joe, I have a question about that Apollo 2 true/false question.”
“You said it was true that Apollo 2 had only 20 seconds of fuel left when it landed, but how could they know that when the mission was cancelled?”
(Pause for processing. Understanding creeps in.)
“Oh, man, I bet that was supposed to be Apollo 11, and I read it as Apollo 2.”
“Well, that would make more sense.”
“I’m sorry. I guess I’ll have to disqualify that question then.”
“Well, I appreciate that, because it certainly was misleading. Thanks.”
That’s an eleven, not a Roman numeral two. (image: nasa.gov)
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it still should have been written with Arabic instead of Roman numerals, and that Apollo missions technically didn’t “land,” but splashed down. I was just happy to take one little victory and bear it graciously.
In case you’re wondering, we were the runners-up for Trivia Night on Tuesday. We have finished second every gorram time I’ve gone. I swear when my brother asks next time, I might say, “Just tell Joe to give us second place already so I can stay home and watch Nathan Fillion in The Rookie.”
But I think SpaceX is the perfect company to change that. Not only is their founder and CEO, Elon Musk, equally well known for his work with Tesla and the Boring Company, but he’s also developed quite the reputation as the “billionaire genius playboy” who was the inspiration for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Tony Stark as portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. Just think about it– how many CEO’s in America do you know who could get away with selling custom flamethrowers
Musk has a history of naming SpaceX’s ships after spaceships from science-fiction. His rocket booster is named after a ship from Star Wars. His flat-top drone ships that serve as landing zones at sea are named after the sentient ships in Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games. His future Mars Colonial Transport ship is named after a ship in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“So what?” you ask. Well, I think these names are meaningful because each comes with a built-in fan base that will take pride in a ship that is named after something they know and love. That makes those fans all that much more likely to follow the real ship’s progress and accomplishments. In “Cap’n Dummy talk,” as Malcolm Reynolds would say, it makes people care.
You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see Trivia Joe post this question some Tuesday night a few years from now:
“The private spaceship that finally returned US astronauts to space after launching from American soil in 2019 was named after the ship in Joss Whedon’s Firefly. True or false?”
And of course I want that answer to be “true” (even if we do finish second again). I think it would help raise awareness of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program if the first Crew Dragon were named after a ship from pop culture, just as the first space shuttle was named Enterprise after the starship from Star Trek. And while Serenity may not be the most high-profile ship in science-fiction, Elon Musk has already demonstrated that this is hardly necessary for it to qualify as a name for a SpaceX ship.
So if you’re a Browncoat, and if you agree with me, please write a letter or postcard to Elon Musk and CEO president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell and let them know as much. All the information you need to do that can be found on the Take Action
page of this site.
Please join me in calling for a SpaceX Crew Dragon named Serenity— because making history is hardly trivial.
Peace, love and rockets…