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The loss of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003 served as a powerful reminder that astronauts are not just another breed of technically sophisticated professionals, but they remain brave explorers of a dangerous and far-from-tamed frontier. Thus, it is fitting that every space shuttle, Columbia included, takes its name in honor of a naval vessel that undertook the arduous and often dangerous task of frontier exploration for the sake of scientific research and human achievement.

Columbia is the namesake of the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe, which it did under Capt. Robert Gray in 1793. Gray and Columbia were also the first captain and ship, respectively, to overcome the sandbars of the Columbia River in Oregon, and the waterway’s name is in honor of the vessel.

NASA named the shuttle Challenger, lost in 1986, in honor of the HMS Challenger, a retrofitted British steam-assisted corvette that undertook a historic six-year expedition to sound the depth of, and gather biological samples from, the ocean floor in 1870. Similarly, the space shuttle Atlantis takes its name from the first U.S. naval vessel devoted to oceanic research, the two-mast ketch Atlantis that served the renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from 1930 to 1966.

Only the test-vehicle Enterprise, which never operated in space but flew atmospheric maneuvers to verify the space shuttle’s glide capabilities, had a namesake in honor of something other than a scientific vessel. In fact, it gained its title from the starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame.

The two other space shuttles—Endeavor and Discovery—take their names from a pair of 18th century naval exploration vessels, both captained by the same famous seaman.


What famous explorer captained two naval vessels that served as the later namesakes for two space shuttles?

None other than Captain James Cook, the legendary explorer of the South Pacific, commanded the naval vessels Endeavor and Discovery during his illustrious career, both of which became namesakes of U.S. space shuttles.

While the space shuttle Endeavor is the most recent addition to NASA’s fleet, Cook’s Endeavor was the first vessel he guided into the Pacific—and only his second command. The ostensible purpose of this voyage, undertaken in 1768, was to better view the astronomical progression of Venus in the Southern hemisphere, but the British Admiralty had secretly charged Cook with discovering and mapping new islands in the vicinity of New Zealand.

He did so, laying claim to the previously unexplored East coast of Australia and discovering (almost to his own demise) the Great Barrier Reef.

Conversely, the space shuttle Discovery is the namesake for one of two ships Cook commanded on his final voyage, begun in 1776 (the other vessel was the Resolution). On this expedition, Cook sailed from New Zealand across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands, which he was the first European to discover, and then traveled on to North America’s West coast, which he followed north into the Arctic.

From there, Cook backtracked to Hawaii (which he named the Sandwich Islands), where he was slain by natives in 1779 during an argument over the theft of a landing boat from the Discovery.

For his work, many consider Cook to be the foremost navigator of his age and the man who introduced Europe to the South Pacific—a legacy of exploration befitting the brave men and women who crew the namesake space shuttles.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.