On September 17, 1976, NASA rolled out a new spaceship. At the time, it was the first of its kind and unlike any other rocket including Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. This new craft would launch into space in the traditional way, but – unlike others – it was engineered to come back to Earth and land like an airplane upon the completion of its mission. The prototype for this new rocket design was called the Space Shuttle and was set to be christened Constitution in honor of the nation's bicentennial.
However, when hundreds of thousands of Star Trek fans wrote letters to NASA and the White House requesting that the shuttle be named Enterprise instead, the administration relented. When Space Shuttle Enterprise was officially unveiled, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and cast members from his hit sci-fi series were on hand for the dedication ceremony.
It is now over four decades since that day and American astronauts have not launched from American soil since the final mission of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. NASA currently pays exorbitant fees to Russia so that US astronauts can go to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz spacecraft. In an attempt to end this dependence on other nations, NASA instituted the Commercial Crew Program, contracting with private companies like Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada to develop the vehicles that will carry American astronauts into space once more. The first manned flight of one of these ships, most likely SpaceX's Crew Dragon, will take place in 2018. When it does, many fans of Joss Whedon's cult sci-fi series Firefly want the ship to be named Serenity, and a group called Take Back the Sky is working to make that happen.
In September of 2012, I co-founded Take Back the Sky with Jeff Cunningham, a systems engineer from Florida working towards a graduate degree in rocket science who has a résumé that includes designing a lunar rover to be sent to the moon without the help of NASA. At the time, Jeff was living in Philadelphia with his wife when he posted on the Pennsylvania Browncoats' Yahoo message boards to make an impassioned case that the next manned American spaceship ought to be named Serenity. Jeff proposed starting a campaign to lobby for that name. At the time I was relatively new to the PA Browncoats and had attended only my second Can't Stop the Serenity charity event in Pittsburgh just a few months earlier. I had known about the Trekkies' campaign to name the shuttle Enterprise and had thought that when NASA eventually replaced the space shuttle that they should name at least one of the new ships after Serenity. I lacked a plan to make that happen though and wouldn't have even known who to contact in order to suggest the name if I had had one. Reading Jeff's post on the PA Browncoats' message boards, I realized that I had found someone who not only shared my dream of seeing a manned US spaceship named Serenity, but also knew the details of NASA's plan to replace the space shuttle as well as the specific people to contact in order to make our dream a reality. I sent him a reply informing him I'd like to help, was told to contact him "off list," and a few e-mails later Take Back the Sky was born.
Through Jeff, I learned about NASA's Commercial Crew Project and how the next manned American spaceships were being built by private companies – and not NASA. Although Boeing and SpaceX had both received contracts for crewed missions, Jeff was convinced that it would be SpaceX that would eventually launch astronauts first. So we decided to make that company, and its founder and CEO Elon Musk, the target of our efforts. (With less than a year to go until the first Commercial Crew flight is expected to take place, it looks like Jeff's prediction is likely to be correct.)
To build a grassroots campaign, we devised a strategy that consisted of a website/blog, online petitions, social media and "boots on the ground" at comics/sci-fi conventions. For a little over six years now our website, takebackthesky.net, has provided updates on SpaceX's launches and other activities, as well as articles about various aspects of "the 'verse" of Firefly and Serenity. We maintain a Facebook page and a Twitter feed to further increase our visibility on social media and we've also conducted two online petitions to SpaceX asking them to name their first Crew Dragon Serenity, which accumulated over 2,500 signatures from every continent except Antarctica (as well as comments in multiple languages) before being mailed to SpaceX headquarters. We have been interviewed twice for the UK Firefly/Serenity podcast “Sending a Wave” and have been featured on sci-fi blogs like “Geek Pittsburgh” and “All Geek to Me”. We've conducted panels about our campaign at Dragon Con, Pittsburgh Comicon, West Virginia Pop Culture Con, Wizard World Philadelphia and Wizard World Pittsburgh, and we've spent countless hours at tables on convention floors, at science fairs and Can't Stop the Serenity screenings in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia collecting petition signatures and encouraging Browncoats to write letters to SpaceX.
We also began a Leaf on the Wind campaign, encouraging Browncoats to send leaves (real or artificial) to SpaceX along with a short note asking them to name their first Crew Dragon Serenity. The leaves, of course, are a reference to the line by Hoban "Wash" Washburne in the motion picture “Serenity” -- "I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar...--" sort of a self-affirmation that he had what astronauts might call "the right stuff." We launched this campaign for our one-year anniversary in the fall of 2014, so by now we hope Elon Musk has received enough leaves at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California to make a pile big enough to jump in!
The first crewed flight of a SpaceX Dragon is currently scheduled for August of 2018, and since SpaceX is operating ahead of its Commercial Crew partner/competitor Boeing with regards to safety checks and vehicle readiness, it will likely be the first time American astronauts launch from US soil in seven years. It also means that there is little time left for Browncoats to convince Elon Musk and SpaceX that Serenity is the proper name for that ship. If you would like to see a real-life spaceship named Serenity (and, one can only hope, a christening ceremony attended by Joss Whedon and the cast of Firefly) here are a few things you can do:
Write letters to SpaceX.
When it comes to lobbying, there is nothing that is more effective than a good, old-fashioned ink-and-paper letter. Write to SpaceX and tell them why you love “Firefly” and “Serenity”, and why you believe there is no better name for that first Crewed Dragon than Serenity. You definitely want to send one or more letters to Elon Musk, because as SpaceX's founder and CEO it's his money and his ship, but don't forget to write to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell too. She's admitted publicly on more than one occasion that “Firefly” is one of her favorite sci-fi shows and that it's very popular with her SpaceX employees as well, so it's likely she would be an ally in convincing Elon Musk of the worthiness of the name Serenity. Send your comments to: Space Exploration Technologies, c/o Elon Musk (or Gwynne Shotwell), 1 Rocket Road, Hawthorne, CA 90250.
Send SpaceX a "Leaf on the Wind."
The great thing about this is that it's so easy to do. Just pick up a leaf from your yard, take an artificial leaf from some decorative garland or cut your own leaf out of construction paper, write something simple like "Crew Dragon Serenity" on it with a permanent marker, and mail it off to Elon Musk and/or Gwynne Shotwell at SpaceX using the address above. They'll know exactly what you mean by it.
Visit our website and follow our blog.
A quick visit to takebackthesky.net will allow you to stay up-to-date on everything that SpaceX is doing and all the latest that we're planning too. You'll find links to our Twitter and Facebook accounts, information about Take Back the Sky, Firefly, Serenity, SpaceX and the Dragon, and ideas and downloads to help you take action.
Tell your fellow Browncoats to get involved.
When NASA made the decision to rename the first space shuttle Enterprise, it was the sheer volume of letters that was the ultimate deciding factor. If we are to succeed in convincing SpaceX to name their first Crew Dragon Serenity, we will need as many Browncoats as possible to make their voices heard. Spreading the word on social media will help, but it's important to realize that simply "liking" or "re-tweeting" brings us no closer to our goal. We need the kind of online word-of-mouth that results in letters and leaves being sent to SpaceX, so don't be afraid to tell other Browncoats about our campaign. Tell them why you believe in it and how they can get involved, and then keep talking about it. After all, it's the love of Browncoats everywhere that will keep this idea in the air.
Elon Musk himself once said, "If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it." History has shown that when you want to do something important that seems like it'll be impossible, there's one group of people you can always count on: the Browncoats! We've done the impossible before, and once again, we aim to make history.
Are you in?
Written by: Christopher Tobias
Contact Take Back the Sky for more details!