Jul 20, 2019

How NASA's Moon missions got their names

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In Greek mythology, Apollo is Artemis’ twin sister, but to the chagrin of some classicists, the first crewed U.S. Moon mission was named after him. Only now is Artemis — the name of NASA's 2024 mission — getting the credit some say she deserves.

The context: 50 years ago, the workforce behind Apollo 11 was majority white and male. With the Artemis program, NASA aims to be more inclusive. The agency plans to send the next man and the first woman to the lunar surface in 5 years.

The backdrop: In 1960, NASA director of space flight development Abe Silverstein proposed the name "Apollo" for the first crewed U.S. mission to the Moon after reading through a mythology book. An image of Apollo riding his chariot across the sun inspired him, because it matched the ambition of the program.

But "an ancient Greek would have thought twice before daring to name a lunar mission after the goddess' (Artemis') younger brother," says Keyne Cheshire, a classics professor at Davidson College.

  • Apollo was a Sun god, whereas Artemis was a Moon goddess. So "Apollo" made less mythological sense as a name for Moon expeditions.
  • "I can't imagine that anything but sexism was the reason for Apollo's getting the credit for so long," Cheshire tells Axios.

By contrast, the Soviet Union sent the first man, first woman, first Asian man and first black man into orbit with their "Luna" program, although the U.S. ultimately sent the first man to the Moon.

  • "Luna" is the Latin name for the Roman Moon goddess Diana.
  • "What was it about American scientific — or broader — culture that led NASA to resist naming its lunar expeditions for the Moon goddess?" Cheshire asks.

Today, NASA is becoming more and more diverse, with 5 women in its most recent class of 12 astronaut candidates.

What's next: After Artemis, Cheshire would recommend "Callisto" — who was "originally a young comrade" of Artemis — as the name for a future Moon mission.

  • Callisto is the name of one of the moons of Jupiter.
  • "Wouldn't it be nice of NASA to put Callisto in some way back in Artemis' camp by naming a Moon mission for her?"

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