'Star Trek: Discovery': Is the New Starship Named for NASA's Space Shuttle?

Star Trek USS Discovery
The USS Discovery will re-launch "Star Trek" onto television in 2017. Is the new starship named after the NASA space shuttle? (Image credit: CBD Television Studio)

Four years ago, the Smithsonian swapped space shuttles at the National Air and Space Museum: NASA's prototype orbiter Enterprise was rolled out and the space shuttle Discovery was rolled in.

Now "Star Trek," which inspired the earlier shuttle's name, has done the same.

"The U.S.S. Discovery [is] the newest Starfleet ship for the franchise's return to television," CBS officials announced in a July 23 release. "The ship's name will also serve as the official title for the highly anticipated new series." ['Star Trek' Starship Enterpise Evolution in Photos]

"Star Trek: Discovery" is set to premiere on CBS in January 2017, before moving to the network's subscription service, CBS All Access.

The choice of "Discovery" as the fictional starship's name has drawn speculation that it might be inspired by the real NASA orbiter now on display at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

"I'm hoping someone will find out for sure if CBS intended the name as a tribute to the space shuttle," Jim Banke, a veteran aerospace writer, posted on Facebook. "I hope we will see a picture of a shuttle Discovery launch somewhere in the new ship!"

Adding to the conjecture was the starship's registry. On the original "Star Trek" TV series, which debuted 50 years ago this September, the Enterprise had the registry NCC-1701.

As revealed in a teaser video for the new series, the USS Discovery has the registry number NCC-1031.

NASA space shuttles Enterprise, left, and Discovery meet nose-to-nose during their transfer at the Smithsonian in April 2012. (Image credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi)

"It's meant to commemorate the space shuttle Discovery's registration number of OV-103," a commenter speculated on StarTrek.com. "Discovery undertook some of the most dangerous and famous flights in the shuttle program and returned America to flight after the two shuttle losses."

If the new "Star Trek" ship was indeed named for the NASA winged vehicle, it would be a reflection — and a reversal — of the roles played 40 years ago. In 1976, fans of the science fiction series organized a grassroots letter-writing campaign to convince the U.S. space agency to name its first shuttle orbiter after the show's starship.

"It certainly would be a nice nod to the most flown of the space shuttle orbiters to name this fictional vehicle after it," said Margaret Weitekamp, the curator for the National Air and Space Museum's Social and Cultural Dimensions of Spaceflight collection, in an interview with collectSPACE. "There is some nice symmetry to the way that the original test vehicle was named 'Enterprise' after a 'Star Trek' ship to now name a 'Star Trek' ship after a very successful, real space shuttle orbiter."

NASA's space shuttle Discovery flew 39 missions, logging a total of 365 days in space between 1984 and 2011. Like its sister shuttles that launched into Earth orbit and glided back, OV-103 was named after past vessels of exploration — primarily HMS Discovery, one of Captain James Cook's ships that led to the discovery of the Hawaiian Islands.

"Whether or not this new 'Star Trek: Discovery' starship is named specifically for the space shuttle orbiter, it certainly is following a rich pop culture tradition of tapping into the long existing history of exploration and then extrapolating that to a possible science fiction future."

CBS declined to comment when asked if the new ship was in fact named for the space shuttle Discovery, but released a statement from Bryan Fuller, the executive producer of "Star Trek: Discovery," from his recent appearance at San Diego Comic Con.

"Discovery is so intrinsic as a concept to the philosophy of 'Star Trek,' it felt like it was a beautiful way to acknowledge that spirit," said Fuller.

"There are so many reasons why we settled on Discovery," Fuller said with a smile. "But the chief one amongst them was that I couldn't think of a more 'Star Trek'-themed name for a ship than Discovery."

Watch "Star Trek: Discovery" executive producer Bryan Fuller describe what the name Discovery means to the new series at collectSPACE.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.