Image Credit: NASA/SpaceX

A Spaceship Named “Dragon”

Brent Moberly

July 1, 2012

I have to admit that I’ve spent a good part of this summer enthralled by the various endeavors of Space Exploration Technologies: the recent mission to the international space station (and back again!); the prehensile “X” (didn’t that meme go extinct in the mid ’90s?); and the willful, misfit medievalism that attends the entire enterprise.

In medias res, there is a rocket called “Falcon,” powered by “Kestral” or “Merlin” engines and topped by a capsule named “Dragon,” which, in turn, comes outfitted with 18 “Draco” thrusters, boasts a logo that harkens back to the Lego Castle days of yore, and will eventually be able to ferry crews to and from the international space station or even Mars.  In company media releases and elsewhere, these crews are called “Dragon Riders.”  The whole project is called “DragonLab(TM).”

As a graduate student I chose to take Peasant Husbandry instead of Dragon Physiology, so I’m not really the expert that I should be in such matters.  I have, however, conducted an exhaustive internet survey in preparation for this entry, and it turns out that everyone from the 420 crowd to the droll misogynists of urban agrees that with dragons, at least in the western tradition, the fire comes out of the front.  Whereas in rocketry, the fire, generally (and hopefully) comes out the back.

OK, if you really want to nitpick — in the case of a thruster, the fire does indeed come out of the “mouth” of the thruster, so the “Draco” thrusters in and of themselves get a pass.  But, according to Wikipedia and company literature, there are 18 of these things interspersed in redundant pairs on all axes of the capsule.  Apparently, they allow the spacecraft fine yaw, pitch, and roll control.  Traditional Dragons have wings for that and, possibly, a tail.

As for the “Dragon Rider” business, the crew is not situated on the capsule, but in it.  I don’t really want to belabor this point, but, again, there is much agreement in Western sources that if you’re in a dragon, you’re not crew, you’re lunch.

As for “DragonLab(TM)” — I understand that in geek culture one achieves a certain caché in naming various, daunting engineering projects after malign entities from ancient lore.  I heard on NPR the other day that the various conference rooms at Google Venture’s Silicon Valley facility bear names from Middle Earth.  And yes, there is a conference room named Mordor.

(From my day-job adventures as a mild-mannered software engineer and as an aside, we once named one of our software development projects Kali. The name turned out to be quite apropos.)

At any rate, as engineers (software or otherwise), we do things like this to suggest, ever so subtly, our mastery over the task at hand, as a hedge against all of the bad things that are likely happen three days after we release our project to an unsuspecting user-base, and to prove that that at least one of us read a book once, even if it was just something by Anne McCaffrey or the Kama Sutra.

But still, aside from intemperate halitosis, dragons are probably best known in the popular imagination as inveterate hoarders.  They are, in short, wealth-sponges. “DragonLab(TM),” then, is probably not the best name for a capital-intensive, multi-billion-dollar, enterprise endeavor.

Of course, all of this is much more of an exercise in corporate brand synergy than it is an attempt at earnest or even amateur medievalism.  As such, it appropriates elements from popular medievalism with some tenuous connection to the matter at hand (fire and flight) but orders them according to an internal logic that makes sense for the brand and only the brand.  Brand neomedievalism, if you will.

Although it is ostensibly a private company, SpaceX owes much to NASA. A lot of its technology was developed by NASA, which will likely be one of its major customers, with the former assuming much of the latter’s mission and resupply burdens now that the shuttles have been retired.  Arguably, SpaceX has also inherited NASA’s penchant for creative branding of its ship and programs.  But NASA’s shtick was mostly classical mythology — Saturn Rockets, Apollo missions, etc. — not fantastic medievalism. Well, there were two Mars probes called “Viking.”

All of this has gotten me thinking about fantasy, medievalism, and mythology, both as often-overlapping genres and as compelling, organizing fictions. It seems to me that classical mythology is mostly ambivalent, with the emphasis as much on what one loses as what one gains.  Think Persephone or Oedipus or Aeneus or Jason, etc.  Medievalism, at least as we have it now (that is, fantasy), is much less ambivalent and generally more optimistic.  Adventure in popular culture is a relatively straight-forward endeavor, which is to say not subject to the degree of reflection or general pensiveness that characterizes classical mythology.

What is it, I wonder, that makes the medieval more appealing as a privatized, corporate mythology? Beyond spaceships named “Dragon” and launch-assist planes named “White Knight 2,” I’m thinking of bank architecture, which has moved from the neoclassical to the post-medieval. (I think Eco characterizes this one bank skyscraper as a modernist castle where the lords of commerce literally tower over the serfs on the ground.)  But also, of public verses private architecture (on this side of the pond) in general: the Chrysler Building (completed in 1930) vs. the National Gallery of Art (1938) or the Lincoln Memorial (1927).  I guess complicating things is the Hoover Dam (1935), which was originally meant to have Gothic balustrades, but was revised to be the Art Deco masterpiece that it is today.  And so, I will end with this impossible image: gargoyles on the Hoover Dam. Oh, wait….



One comment

  1. 7 comments:

    Jim Tigwell July 1, 2012 at 9:04 PM

    Great post, Brent! The idea of medieval myth as a theme for exploration and adventure makes wonder if it isn’t connected in some way to the romance tales and other kinds of stories that we see in the medieval era. Greek heroes tend to have tragic ends, but the hero of romance ventures forth and struggles with the unknown, only to bring what he has learned home with him. What do you think?


    Brent Moberly July 2, 2012 at 9:27 PM

    Thanks! I think you are exactly on target in your comments about the cyclical narrative structure of romance and the general applicability of this trope to topics like exploration. What is interesting to me, beyond this, is how these narratives, which could be very ambivalent (I’m thinking of Gawain and the Green Knight, for example), have lost a lot of their ambivalence in their modern equivalents. I think, for example, that Mallory’s Morte is, at heart, a study of the post-lapsarian condition, but it’s hard to imagine that dimension in a text like Dungeon Siege, World of Warcraft, or Diablo, all of which, arguably adapt the episodic fetch and return quest structure but without the complications that attended the Medieval romance or even their Victorian equivalents. Does this make sense — it’s how I’m thinking about starting to think about approaching it!

    Lesley Coote July 5, 2012 at 4:09 PM

    I think spiritual dimensions now inhere in objects and symbols, like dragons – they are shorthand, in other words. Signs are nowadays frequently (often lazily) interchangeable. Does that make sense?

    Jason Pitruzzello July 6, 2012 at 3:38 PM

    With regards to the privatization and/or corporatization of the medieval, the cynical part of my mind keeps screaming “You can’t copyright medieval stuff.” If it can’t be copyrighted, you don’t have to pay to use a name or pay someone to make up a name. You can just slap a medieval name on something and only worry about whether it sounds cool or not. In fact, aside from superficial resemblances to what the name signifies, the medieval signifier need not even have anything to do with the referent. You want to call a British tank Black Prince, go right ahead, even if the Black Prince was not well known for his use of tank support in infantry assaults in France.

    However, financial considerations aside, there is another factor. It is too easy to forget the long history of medievalism in, err, history. As I am fond of reminding colleagues, only the most trifling authors of the Renaissance dabbled in medievalism: writers like Shakespeare and Spenser (both, incidentally, have sessions at Kalamazoo). In fact, you really can’t have a Middle Ages without thinkers in a later period “creating” the Middle Ages by comparing the differences (real or imagined) in one period to another.

    This is one reason we keep seeing medievalism over and over again. Those who came after the Middle Ages kept pointing to it as a different period and assigned it signifiers. Those signifiers have been used over and over again to the point where they become a kind of sedimentary rock upon which other systems of signification get built.

    This isn’t news to anyone here, obviously, but I wanted to engage with Lesley’s comment about lazy interchangeability of signifiers. In one sense, they are interchangeable. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen in media or even heard in conversation King Arthur brought up as “the ideal English king who can save us all,” an almost ridiculous assertion if you look either at the Vulgate Cycle or Malory. Yet, without a working knowledge of the older texts, all you get is the watered down, 5 second, easy to digest, sanitized version. You miss out on the incest, child murdering, adultery, and other bad behavior that both Arthur indulges in and allows at his court. (My personal favorite has always been his blasé reaction to the decapitation of the Lady of the Lake in his court in Malory while she was there under his protection.) And this does not even factor in the more politically damaging parts of the King Arthur story, like his war with Lancelot who, surprisingly, ends up looking better than Arthur in many narratives, adultery notwithstanding. For a guy compared to Herod in more than one narrative, it’s kind of funny that Arthur gets such a sanitary and dim treatment into a generic “nice guy” who’s king for a while.

    On the other hand, it hasn’t escaped my notice that this “lazy interchangeability” that Lesley talks about seem to me to be more of a deliberate sanitation of the medieval. It’s not just things like murdering the children to avert Merlin’s prophecy about a May Day child overthrowing Arthur, it’s all kinds of other elements. The signifiers seem to get sanitized in a way that makes them easy to digest and understand. Merlin may be a complicated figure in everything from the Vulgate Cycle to Le Roman de Silence, but it’s hard work keeping track of those complicated characters. We could just name some software after him because he’s a wizard kind of guy.

    Mind Your Own Business July 10, 2012 at 9:20 PM

    Engineers and Geeks love the medieval; I believe it is as simple as that. Perhaps it has to do with the loss of the medieval?

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