The robotic ships that serve as landing platforms for SpaceX rockets now have names that honor legendary sci-fi author Iain M. Banks.
Late last month, SpaceX's billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk announced that he had named the company's first spaceport drone ship "Just Read the Instructions." The second autonomous boat, which is under construction, will be called "Of Course I Still Love You," Musk added.
"'Just Read the Instructions' and 'Of Course I Still Love You' are two of the sentient, planet-sized Culture starships which first appear in Banks' 'The Player of Games,'" Tor.com noted last month. "Just as the Minds inhabiting each Culture ship choose their names with care, you have to imagine that Musk did the same here." [6 Fun Facts About SpaceX]
Banks, who was born in Scotland, died of cancer in 2013 at age 59.
"Just Read the Instructions" has already participated in one rocket-landing test, and has the battle scars to prove it. On Jan. 10, SpaceX tried to bring the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket back for a soft landing on the ship, which was positioned in the Atlantic Ocean a couple of hundred miles off Florida.
The bold and unprecedented maneuver — which came after the Falcon 9 had sent SpaceX's robotic Dragon capsule toward the International Space Station on a cargo run for NASA — nearly worked. The rocket stage succeeded in hitting the drone ship, but it came down too hard and exploded.
"Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho," Musk tweeted on Jan. 10. He added: "Ship itself is fine. Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced..."
The Jan. 10 test was part of SpaceX's ongoing effort to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets. Such technology could dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight, Musk has said, perhaps making Mars colonization economically feasible.
The unmanned drone ships provide a measure of safety at this stage, allowing SpaceX to conduct rocket-return tests far from any buildings or people. But the company eventually wants to bring its reusable rockets back on land, at or close to their launch sites.
Musk has drawn inspiration for names from sci-fi before. For example, he named the company's rockets after the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo's spaceship in the "Star Wars" films. Dragon, meanwhile, got its moniker from "Puff the Magic Dragon," the 1963 hit song by the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. (Musk has said he chose the name because many critics deemed SpaceX's ambitious goals impossible when he founded the company in 2002.)
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.