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Call them 'The Flies:' NASA's latest class of astronaut candidates gets their nickname

Alternate portrait of NASA's 23rd class of astronaut candidates, "The Flies," from the left: Jack Hathaway, Christopher Williams, Andre Douglas, Jessica Wittner, Marcos Berríos, Christina Birch, Anil Menon, Nora Al Matrooshi, Jack Hathaway, Deniz Burnham, Mohammad Al Mulla and Nichole Ayers.
Alternate portrait of NASA's 23rd class of astronaut candidates, "The Flies," from the left: Jack Hathaway, Christopher Williams, Andre Douglas, Jessica Wittner, Marcos Berríos, Christina Birch, Anil Menon, Nora Al Matrooshi, Jack Hathaway, Deniz Burnham, Mohammad Al Mulla and Nichole Ayers. (Image credit: NASA/Anil Menon via Instagram)

First came the "Maggots." Then the less specific "Bugs." Now, the latest infestation to take over NASA's Astronaut Office has been identified.

Welcome "The Flies." (opens in new tab)

"It's official, our class has been named 'The Flies'!" Marcos Berríos, a member of NASA's latest group of astronaut candidates, wrote on Instagram (opens in new tab).

Following a tradition that traces back to NASA's first class of astronauts, who adopted the nickname "The Original Seven," the naming of NASA's 23rd group of spaceflight trainees marks a milestone in their progress to becoming eligible for mission assignments. Unlike the Mercury astronauts, though, it was not up to the 2021 "ascans" to name themselves, as another custom dictates.

"Each NASA astronaut class has traditionally been given a name by the other classes," Anil Menon, a fellow member of "The Flies," explained in his own post to Instagram (opens in new tab) on Tuesday (April 5).

Related: NASA announces 10 new astronaut candidates for future space station, moon missions

Members of NASA's 23rd class of astronaut candidates celebrate receiving their new official nickname, "The Flies," with a fly-adorned cake. Zena Cardman, a member of the prior class, "The Turtles," is seen wearing a fly costume.

Members of NASA's 23rd class of astronaut candidates celebrate receiving their new official nickname, "The Flies," with a fly-adorned cake. Zena Cardman, a member of the prior class, "The Turtles," is seen wearing a fly costume. (Image credit: NASA/Marcos Berríos via Instagram)

The four women and six men chosen by NASA (opens in new tab) in December 2021 reported to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to begin two years of basic training (opens in new tab) in January. Joining their class were also the two members of the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) second class of astronauts (opens in new tab), increasing the number of "Flies" to 12.

In addition to Berríos and Menon, "The Flies" include: Nichole Ayers, Christina Birch, Deniz Burnham, Luke Delaney, Andre Douglas, Jack Hathaway, Christopher Williams, Jessica Wittner, Nora Al Matrooshi and Mohammad Al Mulla.

"We have 12 flies from different countries, fighter pilots, helicopter pilots, civilian, military, engineers and medical folks," said Menon. "The diversity ... makes us stronger at adversity."

But why "The Flies"?

Recent tradition holds that the nickname chosen by the preceding class has a double meaning, such that it can embraced by the new candidates as a title to bond and rally under, while also being a bit deprecating at the same time.

"There have been a lot of great flies. There was Super Fly. Michigan's Fab 5 was pretty fly. MJ knew how to fly," Menon wrote, citing the title character from a 1972 film, the star players on an early 1990s college basketball team and former NBA legend Michael Jordan. "I couldn't be more excited to be a part of this fly team."

But that was not what the members of Group 22, chosen in 2017, had in mind — at least not entirely.

"The previous class, 'The Turtles,' suggested various reasons for the name," said Berríos. "Maybe it's because they think we're 'super fly' or because turtles eat flies. Possibly it's because they want us to fly to space one day or because flies are a nuisance."

"Perhaps it's because flies serve as an important scientific model in space," added Berríos, "although they also alluded to the exquisite diet of flies!"

"The Turtles" also had a similar divided meaning to their nickname (opens in new tab). They were a tad green around the collar and a bit shell-shocked at being selected, but together they also endured the floods caused by Hurricane Harvey within a week of their arrival.

"The Flies," or NASA's 23rd class of astronaut candidates, from left: Christopher Williams, Andre Douglas, Mohammad Al Mulla, Jessica Wittner, Marcos Berríos, Deniz Burnham, Nichole Ayers, Nora Al Matrooshi, Jack Hathaway, Christina Birch, Luke Delaney and Anil Menon.

"The Flies," or NASA's 23rd class of astronaut candidates, from left: Christopher Williams, Andre Douglas, Mohammad Al Mulla, Jessica Wittner, Marcos Berríos, Deniz Burnham, Nichole Ayers, Nora Al Matrooshi, Jack Hathaway, Christina Birch, Luke Delaney and Anil Menon. (Image credit: NASA/Anil Menon via Instagram)

"The Flies" are the third astronaut class to be given an insect-inspired nickname. NASA's tenth group of trainees, who were selected in 1984, were "The Maggots." Sixteen years later, "The Bugs" joined the corps.

"That name was inspired by the 'millennium bug' — the widespread concern in 1999 that computers would crash and end life as we knew it when calendars rolled over from 1999 to 2000," Nicole Stott, a member of "The Bugs," wrote in her book, "Back to Earth: What Life in Space Taught Me About Our Home Planet — And Our Mission to Protect It" (Seal Press, 2021).

"While intended to be playfully disparaging, the name could have been worse," she wrote. "We embraced ours; after all, most bugs have wings and can fly. The one thing all astronauts want to do is fly."

Other past astronaut class nicknames have included "The Hairballs," "The Hogs," "The Flying Escargot," "The Sardines" and "The Penguins." "The Peacocks" were selected in 2004, "The Chumps (opens in new tab)" in 2009 and "The 8-Balls (opens in new tab)" in 2013.

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet," wrote Menon, quoting William Shakespeare.

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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.