Throughout its 64-year history, NASA has named several of its spacecraft and missions after ancient Greek gods and mythological figures. But what is the connection between NASA and ancient Greek mythology?
From the Apollo program, which ran between 1961 and 1972, to the ongoing Artemis program, which began in 2017, NASA has a tendency to name its most important endeavors after Greek mythological figures.
NASA’s spaceflight missions named after Greek Gods
Dr. Abe Silverstein was the person largely responsible for naming NASA’s early missions. Silverstein was an engineer who had also worked at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
Silverstein became the Director of Space Flight Programs at NASA and was responsible for planning and directing the United States’ first spaceflight missions.
Silverstein named two missions after the Greek gods: Mercury and Apollo. Mercury was the Roman name for the Greek god Hermes. In mythology, Hermes was a messenger god and protector of travelers and thieves.
Apollo was one of the most beloved deities by the ancient Greeks. He was a son of Zeus and Leto and was associated with archery, poetry, music, and dance. Apollo was also closely associated with the Sun, which is perhaps why his name was seen as suitable for a space mission.
Silverstein was inspired by Greek mythology one evening in 1960. Whilst reading a book on the subject, he came across a picture of Apollo. Silverstein said that the image of “Apollo riding his chariot across the sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program.”
NASA also named a mission that took place between Mercury and Apollo according to a mythological theme. The name of Project Gemini, which ran between 1961 and 1966, was inspired by the myth of the Dioscuri.
The Dioscuri were the half-twin brothers, Castor and Pollux. Both twins were sons of Leda, but the father of Pollux was Zeus. Castor’s father was a mortal king of Sparta. When Castor died, his demigod brother begged Zeus to also grant immortality to his brother, so Zeus transformed them into the constellation Gemini.
NASA has continued its tradition of naming its missions and spaceships after Greek mythological figures.
NASA’s latest mission to once again land humans on the moon has been named after the goddess Artemis. In mythology, Artemis was closely associated with the moon and her twin brother was the god Apollo.
In November, NASA successfully launched the Artemis 1 moon rocket. The spaceship itself was called Orion, which, in Greek mythology, was a huge, supernaturally strong hunter. Orion’s parents were the god Poseidon and the gorgon Euryale.
Vangelis, Mythodea, and the Mars Odyssey
In 1993, the renowned Greek composer Vangelis performed at the Herodes Atticus Theater in Athens, Greece. It was the first and last time the general public would hear Mythodea, his new orchestral symphony, until 2001.
However, in 2001, Sony Classical brought Mythodea to the attention of NASA, who adopted Vangelis’ musical vision as the official soundtrack for their Mars Odyssey mission. The audio CD for Mythodea was scheduled for release on the same day the Odyssey spacecraft reached the orbit of Mars.
Vangelis commented, “I made up the name Mythodea from the words myth and ode. And I felt in it a kind of shared or common path with NASA’s current exploration of the planet.”
The Mars Odyssey mission itself was named after the epic work of Homer. In Homer’s tale, Odysseus, a hero of the Trojan War, overcomes impossible odds to return home. Similarly, Mars, like many of the planets in the solar system, is named after the Greco-Roman gods. Mars was the Roman name for Ares, the Greek god of war.
It is perhaps fitting that NASA continues to name its space missions after the ancient Greek gods. The ancient Greeks looked to the sky with great curiosity. Astronomers like Aratus and Apollonius made some of the world’s first discoveries about outer space.
However, the ancient Greeks also captured something less tangible but just as important in their mythology. Before NASA sent anyone to the moon, the Greeks and Romans named the planets after their gods. In this way, they recognized the majesty, wonder, and occasional terror the universe can conjure in the human imagination.