Funny Names

F-14 Tomcat

Many new worlds opened when I joined NASA in 1978: aviation, aviators, the military and their machines.

It took a while to be able to tell the difference between an F-14 and an F-16 jet aircraft even though they were remarkably different.  Although I’d looked up the names of my classmates in our class of 35 before we gathered at the Johnson Space Center, many didn’t answer to the names that appeared on the list.  Almost half of our class came from the military—often from the flying world—where they had acquired nicknames or “call signs.”  Remember the movie Top Gun where Tom Cruise was “Maverick,” his back seater was “Goose,” and they were always trying to outdo a fellow flyer called “Ice Man?”

These names had a purpose.  When talking to other members of a flight of several aircraft, there might be more than one John or Bob.  How could they be distinguished?  So, flyers chose call signs or were given ones by their teammates or their boss.

Some weren’t exactly…complimentary. 

Cowboy Hoot Gibson

My husband told me about a few.  A fellow whose last name was Smart became “Not So,” a guy who used foul language became “Toilet Tongue” or “T-squared,” and someone of short stature and slender build became “Termite.”  My spouse was named after the crusty old cowboy movie hero of the 1930s, Hoot Gibson.

In 1984, when there was a major spacewalk on a Shuttle mission, the crewmembers were Jim Van Hoften—tall and strong—and George Nelson, blonde and light complexioned.  The media people commenting on their spectacular endeavors preferred their nicknames: “Ox” and “Pinky.”

Airplanes had nicknames, too—often very strong, manly ones.

Pukin’ Dogs Patch

The F-14 fighter jets were called Tomcats with an insouciant, grinning, gunslinger cat as their emblem. Heaven knows how some of their squadrons got their names.  The worst squadron name I ever heard was the Pukin’ Dogs, with a picture on their patch of a black dog vomiting.  Only a bunch of guys at the bar could come up with that.

My nicknames (thankfully) have rarely been used.

Just after I was selected to be an astronaut, one of my fellow surgery residents thought I should be called “Cosmic Rhea.”  And after I posed for a funny crew picture mimicking a

STS-40 Crew Picture

M.A.S.H. team, someone said I should take the name “Rhea-dar” after “Radar” O’Reilly.  Thank heavens those names didn’t stick.

Do you have a nickname?  What would you choose if you were a fighter pilot?

– Rhea
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  1. Hello “Cosmic”,

    During my time as a fighter pilot there was one mission where I couldn’t visually acquire the bogey prior to the merge. In other words I didn’t see the simulated bad guy when it normally would have seen them. I took some heat from my comrades for that issue.
    For a few days after that my callsign was “Magoo” after the visually impaired cartoon character. Fortunately that callsign didn’t stick.

    Check Six!

  2. I guess Rhea-dar was better than Major O’Houlihans nickname.
    I would have guessed “Doc.”
    I always loved those “unofficial” crew photos

  3. Personal call signs were not used in the USAF flight test and bomber communities when I worked with them. I think that it was mostly a USN thing back then, and maybe the USAF fighter guys used them also.

    Later in my career, at Boeing, I picked up the personal call sign Prime Time. It’s a long story, and mostly funny if you were there at the time.

  4. Hot Lips would have been great for you. Blond hair and all!!!! Great article. You never disappoint!!

  5. I like the nickname that Charlie Walker was given on the STS-41D mission; “CFES Charlie”. The name refers to the continuous flow electrophoresis experiment he carried out on that flight. Other crew members received neat names like Tarzan, Cheetah, and Jane. Coincidentally Dr. Seddon served as Walker’s backup on the 51D mission.


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