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?”