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ISS Name Game

Expedition One Crew Wins Bid To Name Space Station Alpha

By Todd Halvorson
Cape Canaveral
Bureau Chief
posted: 10:30 am ET 
02 November 2000     

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The International Space Station at long last has a 
real name -- or at least a radio call sign -- a moniker for a mythical 
mountaintop where mere mortals could make contact with other worlds above. 

In a gutsy bid to get bureaucrats to deal with a political hot potato, U.S. 
astronaut Bill Shepherd -- the station's first full-time commander -- boldly 
asked for a go-ahead to christen the outpost "Alpha" just hours after 
arriving at the complex Thursday. 

The intrepid move came during the first official exchange between the 
so-called Expedition One Crew and dignitaries gathered at the Russian Mission 
Control Center outside Moscow. 

"The first expedition on space station requests permission to take the radio 
call sign 'Alpha,'" Shepherd said in a space-to-ground conversation with NASA 
Administrator Daniel Goldin. 

A seemingly stunned Goldin let out a nervous laugh and paused as Shepherd 
pumped his fist in the air and then clasped hands with Russian cosmonauts 
Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev in a show of crew unity. 

"Temporarily, take it as Alpha," Goldin replied as a spontaneous burst of 
applause erupted in the Russian control center. "Go ahead. Have a good day." 

"Spasiba balshoy," Shepherd responded, using the Russian words for "Thank you 
very much." 

"You've been pushing real hard," Goldin added. 

To say the least. 

Shepherd, 51, has been pestering project managers for years to give the 
orbiting outpost a real name, something other than "International Space 
Station," or the ho-hum acronym ISS, which is pronounced letter by letter. 

Shepherd -- a former Navy SEAL -- even went so far as to raise the topic on 
the eve of his crew's launch Tuesday from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 

"For thousands of years, humans have been going to sea in ships," the veteran 
astronaut told reporters during a traditional pre-launch news conference 
earlier this week. 

"People have designed and built these vessels, launched them with a good 
feeling that a name will bring good fortune to the crew and success to their 
voyage," he added. "We're waiting for some decision from our managers as to 
whether we will follow that tradition or not." 

That's not to say, however, that the station has never had a real name. 

The administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan -- which first 
proposed the project in 1984 -- dubbed the station "Freedom," but that name 
was dropped after Bill Clinton took office eight years later. 

The outpost, in fact, was known as "Alpha" for about a year -- an unofficial 
name given to the station after the Clinton administration ordered sweeping 
project changes in 1992. Shepherd, incidentally, played a key role in the 
redesign effort that led to that name. 

The Alpha moniker, however, was abandoned quietly after the Russians were 
brought into the project and independent analysts started referring to the 
outpost as "Ralpha." 

NASA officials since then have consistently dodged the thorny issue, fearing 
that all 16 nations involved in the station project could not reach a 
politically and culturally correct consensus on an appropriate name for the 

A joint effort of space agencies in the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, 
Canada and Brazil, the station project involves about 100,000 workers on four 

To Shepherd and his crew, Alpha is an extraordinarily suitable name. 

"What I like with Alpha's name is that it's kind of going back to the Greek 
language, the Greek alphabet," Krikalev said prior to flight. "It's not 
specifically Russian or English. And it's also going back to human history." 

But there's one other overriding reason that the Expedition One crew likes 
the name -- and that is its place in ancient Greek mythology. 

"It had something to do with a mythical mountain where humans went to gain 
contact with the heavens," Shepherd said in a preflight interview with 
SPACE.com. "It was a landmark of such magnitude that it allowed contact 
between the terrestrial and the heavenly world." 

Whether the name sticks now remains to be seen. But Goldin gave his blessing 
to it for the duration of the crew's four-month stay at the international 

"I'll authorize (the name) station Alpha for the entire Expedition One 
mission," Goldin ultimately told Shepherd and his crew. "Now you can sleep 
well at night and not have any concerns." 

"Well, thank you sir," Shepherd replied. "I think there are about 100,000 
people on the ground who now know what the name of the station is." 
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