Word of the Month: Space

On 1 February, the space shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven were lost during their return to earth. In the weeks since, news reports have treated the public with detailed insights into NASA and the US space program and exposed millions to jargon terms used by astronauts and aeronautical engineers. So to honor the seven who lost their lives in the exploration of the heavens, our word of the month is:

Space, n., the expanse of the universe beyond the earth’s atmosphere. This sense was first used in 1667 by Milton in Paradise Lost. From the Old French espace.

The following is a sampling of technical jargon and NASA slang terms that have either been used in the news reports on the shuttle tragedy or have been the subject of inquiry by readers of the web site.

Ablation, n., the removal of material in small increments. In aeronautical use since 1951 to mean the removal of surface material via heat as an object enters the atmosphere. Also a verb, to ablate, and an adjective, ablative.

A-OK, adj., a variant of OK, 1961. The exact origin is uncertain. Some claim it means all-OK. Others contend that it was coined by Col. John A. “Shorty” Powers, a public information officer and the “Voice of Mercury Control” because A-OK was more likely to be understood through radio static than a simple OK.

Apollo, prop. n., designation for the third type of US manned spacecraft, flown 1968-75. Project Apollo was the program to put a man on the moon. After that project ended in 1972, the spacecraft was used in the Skylab missions, the first space station, and in the Apollo-Soyuz project, the first joint US-Russian space flight. After the Greek god.

Astronaut, n., a person who travels in space, from the Greek astro- (star) + naut (sailor), 1929, after aeronaut. Also cosmonaut, which is used especially for a Russian astronaut, from the Greek or Russian cosmos, universe.

Atlantis, prop. n., name of the fourth space shuttle orbiter, OV-104. Named for the famed research vessel used by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from 1930-66.

Boost, n. & v., power that lifts an air- or spacecraft, in aeronautical use since 1931. Deboost, n & v., the slowing of a spacecraft via a retrorocket or deceleration maneuver, 1966. Also booster, n., an auxiliary engine or rocket that gives a rocket initial speed, 1944.

Burn, v. & n., to fire a rocket engine, the firing of a rocket engine, 1964.

Canaveral, Cape, prop. n., site of the Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Launch site for all US manned space flights and US satellites in equatorial orbit. From the Spanish for canebrake or thicket of reeds. Called Cape Kennedy from 1963-73, before reverting to its traditional name.

Challenger, prop. n., name of the second space shuttle orbiter, OV-99. Challenger was destroyed on launch of the 51st shuttle mission on 28 January 1986 with the loss of all seven astronauts on board.

Columbia, prop. n., name of the first space shuttle orbiter, OV-102. Named for Christopher Columbus. Columbia was destroyed on re-entry on 1 February 2003 with the loss of all seven astronauts on board.

De-spin, v., to stop a satellite from spinning, 1960.

Discovery, prop. n., name of the third space shuttle orbiter, OV-103. Named for one of Captain James Cook’s ships.

Dock, v., to join one spacecraft with another, 1951. From the older sense of to bring a ship alongside a dock, 1600.

Endeavour, prop. n., name of the fifth space shuttle orbiter, replacement for Challenger, OV-105. Named for the first ship commanded by Captain James Cook, hence the British spelling of the name.

ESA, abbrev., European Space Agency.

Gemini, prop. n., designation for the second type of US manned spacecraft, flown 1965-66. From the Latin for twins, after the fact that Gemini was a two-man spacecraft.

Glitch, n. & v., a malfunction, 1962, from electronics jargon for an electrical surge. Ultimately from the German glitschen, to slip, probably via Yiddish.

Hubble, prop. n., an orbiting telescope, named for astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953). Launched in 1990.

Intermodal, adj., relating to the transport of cargo that uses multiple modes of transport during the journey, NASA jargon from 1963.

Launch, v., n., & adj., relating to the lift-off of a rocket, 1952, from the sense of launching a sailing vessel.

Mach, n., a measurement of speed corresponding to the speed of sound, Mach 2 being twice the speed of sound, Mach 3 three-times the speed of sound, etc. Named for Austrian physicist Ernst Mach (1838-1916).

Man-rate, v., to certify a vehicle as safe for manned flight, 1963. Also, an adjective, man-rated.

Mercury, prop. n., designation for the first type of US manned spacecraft, flown 1961-63. After the Roman messenger god.

Microgravity, n., a condition where gravitational influences are very weak, specifically gravitational forces on board a spacecraft in orbit. (True zero-gravity is impracticable, imperfections in the orbit and gravitational pull from the sun, other planets and objects, and the spacecraft itself still exists). In use from 1975.

Mir, prop. n., a Russian space station that was in orbit 1986-99. Mir is the Russian word for peace.

Mission, n., an operational flight of an air- or spacecraft, 1929, ultimately from the Latin missionem, the act of sending something.

MIT, abbrev., Mishap Investigation Team, NASA and US military jargon for a group of engineers that investigate the causes of an aircraft or spacecraft accident. From 1990.

NACA, abbrev., National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Predecessor US government agency to NASA, 1922.

NASA, abbrev., National Aeronautics and Space Agency, US government agency charged with managing the civilian space program. 1958.

Nominal, adj., average, normal, within acceptable limits, 1966 for this sense. This sense of the word is unique to aviation and space jargon. The general sense refers to things having to do with names. There is a sense meaning in name only, that differences are insignificant. This sense is conflated with normal in space jargon. Off-nominal means outside acceptable limits.

Off-Scale Low (or High), adj., in reference to an instrument reading that goes outside measurable limits. Low or high refers to the vector when the instrument stopped functioning.

Orbit, n. & v., the path or course of a satellite around an object, 1696. To fly in a circle, 1946. To fly as a satellite, 1951. From the Latin orbis, wheel or circle. De-orbit, v., to leave an orbit and descend, 1962. Also used as a noun and as an adjective, especially in the phrase de-orbit burn.

Orbiter, n., a spacecraft or part of a spacecraft that flies in an orbit, 1958. Specifically, the space shuttle minus the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters.

Payload, n., the part of an aircraft’s load from which revenue is derived or mission objectives accomplished, pay + load, 1930.

Plasma, n., a gas consisting of positive ions and free negative electrons in roughly equal numbers, usually achieved by high heat, burning gases, 1928. From the Latin plasma, a thing molded or shaped.

Progress, prop. n., an unmanned Russian cargo spacecraft used to carry supplies and material into orbit, based on the Soyuz design, 1978. Calque of the Russian name.

Pushing the envelope, v.phr., to exceed design limits. From mathematical and engineering jargon where an envelope is the locus of intersections in a series of curves.

Re-entry, n., the return of a spacecraft into the earth’s atmosphere, 1948.

Retro, n., a rocket that slows the forward momentum of a spacecraft, causing it to fall into a lower orbit or re-enter the atmosphere, 1961. A clipping of retro-rocket, 1957. From the Latin retro, backwards.

Satellite, n., an object that revolves around another, larger one. From the Latin satellitem, attendant or guard. This sense coined by astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1611. English use is from 1665.

Screw the pooch, c.phr., to commit catastrophic error, to fail, 1962. Euphemistic formulation of fuck the dog. From WWI army slang originally meaning to loaf, to idle, to fool around. Associated especially with aviation jargon because of its use in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff.

Shuttle, n., a reusable spacecraft, more fully space shuttle. From 1960 in science fiction; in NASA usage since 1969. From WWII aviation usage denoting aircraft that made repeated flights between two points. Ultimately from the device used in weaving that passes the thread of the weft to and fro between the threads of the warp, 1338 from the Old English scytel.

Soft landing, n., a landing of a spacecraft where no damage is sustained, 1958.

Soyuz, prop. n., name of a Russian manned spacecraft, 1960. First flight was in 1966. Soyuz is Russian for union.

STS, abbrev., Space Transportation System, NASA term for the space shuttle, 1972. Shuttle missions are designated STS-#. The final flight of Columbia was STS-107, the 107th space shuttle mission.

Vandenberg, prop. n., US Air Force base on the California coast. Launch site for US satellites in polar orbits. Named after General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Air Force Chief of Staff, 1958.

Zero-G, n. and adj., a clipping of zero gravity, a condition where there is no significant gravitational forces on a body. Zero-gravity was coined by Arthur C. Clarke in 1951; he coined zero-g in 1952.

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