First SLS could be named after Eugene Cernan

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WASHINGTON — A resolution introduced in the House of Representatives Feb. 15 requests that NASA name the first launch of the Space Launch System after the late Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan.

The non-binding resolution, introduced by Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), John Culberson (R-Texas) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas), expresses the “sense of Congress” that the heavy-lift rocket’s inaugural flight be named after Cernan, the Apollo 17 commander who passed away Jan. 16.

Aderholt announced the resolution during a Capitol Hill reception Feb. 15 during the SLS/Orion Suppliers Conference here, attended by several members of Congress as well as industry. “I did today, with a couple of my colleagues, introduce a ‘sense of Congress’ resolution recommending to NASA that the SLS rocket be named after the late Gene Cernan,” he said.

“SLS will be key to moon missions,” he said. “In light of the work that Gene Cernan has done as an astronaut, his long life being an advocate for the U.S. space program, it was a privilege that we drop that resolution today to name ‘Cernan-1’ for the SLS.”

There was some confusion, based on both Aderholt’s comments and the text of the resolution itself, if it was intended to rename the SLS itself or only its first mission, currently known by NASA as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1).

The introduction of the resolution states that its purpose is to “express the sense of Congress that the first launch of the Space Launch System should be named for Captain Eugene Andrew ‘Gene’ Cernan.” However, later in the resolution it states that “it is the sense of Congress that the Space Launch System (SLS) should be named the Cernan 1.”

Emily Taylor, a spokeswoman for Rep. Culberson, said Feb. 16 that the resolution is intended only to rename EM-1 to Cernan-1.

Cernan “was a dear friend and I cannot think of a more fitting way to honor his legacy than the first launch of the Space Launch System carrying Captain Cernan’s name,” Culberson said in a Feb. 15 statement about the resolution.

The resolution is a reminder that, more than six years after the passage of a 2010 authorization bill that directed NASA to develop a heavy-lift rocket, the SLS name lives on. The term was defined in the 2010 act as “the follow-on government-owned civil launch system developed, managed, and operated by NASA to serve as a key component to expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit.” It also defined many of the technical characteristics of the vehicle, including its payload performance and requirement to carry crews as well as cargo.

It’s not clear, though, if the rather generic name was meant as anything more than a placeholder until NASA offered an alternative name. It draws parallels to the Space Transportation System, the formal name of the space shuttle program but one not widely used outside of the STS designation for shuttle missions.

While NASA has, in the past, suggested it might consider a naming contest to rename the SLS, it has not done so. A provision in a NASA authorization bill introduced in 2015 called for such a contest, but the legislation, like other proposed authorization bills since the 2010 act, did not become law.