Declassified Memos Reveal Debate Over Naming the Shuttle "Enterprise"

NASA had initially planned to name the first Space Shuttle Constitution. Now, declassified White House documents reveal what convinced President Gerald Ford to overrule that decision and thrill Star Trek fans by calling it Enterprise.

(Photo: NASA)

On September 3, 1976, William Gorog, a senior economic adviser to Ford, sent the president a decision memorandum:

Next Wednesday you will meet with Dr. James Fletcher of NASA for a substantive meeting at which time you will be presented with a mock-up of the space shuttle, the full scale version of which will be rolled out in California later this month. NASA has not announced a name as of yet for the shuttle, and they are holding this announcement until your meeting with Fletcher.

Dr. Fletcher is not adverse to the name "Enterprise" for the space shuttle, and I suggest that you ask that it be so named for the following reasons:

  • NASA has received hundreds of thousands of letters from the space-oriented "Star Trek" group asking that the name "Enterprise" be given to the craft. This group comprises millions of individuals who are deeply interested in our space program.
  • The name "Enterprise" is tied in with the system on which the Nation's economic structure is built.
  • Use of the name would provide a substantial human-interest appeal to the rollout ceremonies scheduled for this month in California, where the aeronautical industry is of vital importance.

In short, this situation could provide the same public interest as the CB radio provided for Mrs. Ford.

The CB radio that Gorog refers to was a PR success for the White House. Betty Ford (in addition to donning a mood ring) embraced the 1970s trend, chatting on her CB with the handle "First Mama." Gorog himself was a tech-savvy entrepreneur. Before working at the White House, he was a founder and chief executive of the Data Corporation, which created the computerized information retrieval system that later became LexisNexis. From his perspective the name Enterprise was a win-win, since it was both a pop-culture icon and a reference to America's can-do spirit.

Four days later, a follow-up memorandum was sent from James Connor, the Secretary of the Cabinet, to President Ford, summarizing the opinions of White House officials.

Jim Cannon, the Domestic Policy Advisor to the President, said:

"It seems to me "Enterprise" is an excellent name for the space shuttle.

It would be personally gratifying to several million followers of the television show "Star Trek", one of the most dedicated constituencies in the country.

Moreover, the name "Enterprise" is a hallowed Navy tradition. An "Enterprise" was in action against the Barbary pirates in 1803. During World War II, an "Enterprise" served with the Wasp and the Hornet in the carrier fleet in the Pacific. And the Navy's current "Enterprise" is the first nuclear carrier."

Robert Hartmann, counselor to the president, disagreed: "This is an especially hallowed Naval name - going back to the Revolution - I think Navy should keep it."

And Jack Marsh, a national security advisor, gave his reluctant endorsement:

"I have no objection to this selection of a name, however, I am not enthusiastic about the rationale for the selection. "Enterprise" is a famous name for vessels since the early days of the Republic. I think that is a far better reason than appealing to a T.V. fad."

Ten days later, NASA unveiled the first space shuttle, the Enterprise.