spaceSpace and Physics

Why Are NASA's New Astronauts Called The "Turtles"?


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

The astronauts and their tasty cake. Ellen Ochoa/NASA/Twitter

NASA’s new class of astronauts now have a nickname – the “Turtles”. These astronauts will likely be responsible for flying a new fleet of vehicles for NASA, although their exact purpose isn’t clear, meaning their nickname might have a bit of a double meaning.

These new astronauts were revealed in June 2017. The group of Turtles includes 12 US astronauts and two Canadians. The Americans were selected from a record-breaking 18,300 applications in December 2015, more than double the previous record of 8,000 in 1978.


A picture of the newly crowned class, together with a cake of 14 turtles on fenceposts (more on that in a bit) with a nod to Hurricane Harvey, was posted on Twitter by veteran NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa. Full credit to CollectSpace for first spotting this.


The name carries an obvious connotation of them being rookies, and thus “green” like a turtle. According to Ochoa, the name references comments made by Vice President Mike Pence in a speech announcing the astronauts in June.


We haven’t been able to find these comments, although we’ve asked NASA’s Astronaut Office for clarification. A tweet from Pence back in February 2015, however, suggests it was probably a somewhat odd reference to a turtle on a fencepost.


The name’s meaning might be two-fold, though. New classes of astronauts often have their names picked by a preceding class, poking fun at them in some way or another. The last class were called the 8-balls, and before that it was the Chumps, Peacocks, Bugs, and Penguins.


So this may be a tongue-in-cheek joke referencing how there’s a bit of uncertainty about what spacecraft these astronauts will fly on. They could be assigned to the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the Boeing Starliner, or even NASA’s own Orion spacecraft.

“The uncertainty surrounding their path forward and the fact that they represent new competition for flight assignments may have brought to mind a joke about the ‘post turtle,’” CollectSpace notes.

Whatever the origin of the name, these astronauts will be going to space one way or another. If you want to learn more about them, why not have a read of our chat with Zena Cardman, one of the 12 NASA astronauts and now an honorary Turtle.



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