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Moonship Orion at last

— For weeks, the name of NASA's next spaceship has been one of the space agency's worst-kept secrets. Today, "Orion" finally became official, after a space station astronaut spilled the beans yet again.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle, shown here
in an artist's conception, will be known as
the Orion, just as earlier moonships were
known as Apollo spacecraft.

It's been weeks since the CollectSpace Web site (and Space.com) reported that NASA's Crew Exploration Vehicle would be dubbed the Orion. CollectSpace's Robert Pearlman even published the logo designed for Project Orion.

So it was really no surprise when space station astronaut Jeff Williams, through no fault of his own, used the not-quite-official name in a spaceship-to-shore radio transmission today.  The Associated Press happened to be listening in as Williams delivered a statement celebrating the Orion name: "We've been calling it the Crew Exploration Vehicle for several years, but today it has a name - Orion," Williams declared.

The statement apparently was meant to be held back for release on Aug. 31, when NASA announces its selection of the prime contractor for the CEV project (either Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman, which has the Boeing Co. on its team).

But because the name was aired on an open channel - and because AP reported the name - NASA apparently decided to go ahead and make it official, more than a week in advance of its original timetable. Here's the full statement from the space agency, released late today:

"NASA announced Tuesday that its new crew exploration vehicle will be named Orion.

"Orion is the vehicle NASA's Constellation Program is developing to carry a new generation of explorers back to the moon and later to Mars. Orion will succeed the space shuttle as NASA's primary vehicle for human space exploration.

"Orion's first flight with astronauts onboard is planned for no later than 2014 to the International Space Station. Its first flight to the moon is planned for no later than 2020.

"Orion is named for one of the brightest, most familiar and easily identifiable constellations.

"'Many of its stars have been used for navigation and guided explorers to new worlds for centuries,' said Orion Project Manager Skip Hatfield. 'Our team, and all of NASA - and, I believe, our country - grows more excited with every step forward this program takes. The future for space exploration is coming quickly.'

"In June, NASA announced the launch vehicles under development by the Constellation Program have been named Ares, a synonym for Mars. The booster that will launch Orion will be called Ares I, and a larger heavy-lift launch vehicle will be known as Ares V.

"Orion will be capable of transporting cargo and up to six crew members to and from the International Space Station. It can carry four crewmembers for lunar missions. Later, it can support crew transfers for Mars missions.

"Orion borrows its shape from space capsules of the past, but takes advantage of the latest technology in computers, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems. The capsule's conical shape is the safest and most reliable for re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, especially at the velocities required for a direct return from the moon.

"Orion will be 16.5 feet in diameter and have a mass of about 25 tons. Inside, it will have more than 2.5 times the volume of an Apollo capsule. The spacecraft will return humans to the moon to stay for long periods as a testing ground for the longer journey to Mars.

"NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, manages the Constellation Program and the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., manages the Exploration Launch Projects' office for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, Washington."

As NASA lays its plans to return to the moon, some officials undoubtedly hope that Orion-Ares will become as well-known as Apollo-Saturn. So if the twists and turns of the naming process make a bit of news, so much the better.

In addition to the Orion brouhaha, there's another name game that space geeks can play, having to do with the trailer for the "Transformers" movie. One of my colleagues at MSNBC.com, Will Femia, touted the mini-movie in his freshly made-over Clicked blog. The only problem is, the rover is playing a different character.

The trailer misidentifies the six-wheeled rover as the British-built Beagle 2 probe, which was mysteriously lost just as it was landing back in late 2003. The real Beagle had no wheels at all, which would make it even more of a sitting duck for the movie's super-stomping villainbot.

Do you have a favorite space-fiction faux pas to share? Feel free to reference it in your comments below.

Update for 9:40 p.m. ET Aug. 22: I reworked this item to reflect the fact that NASA threw in the towel on its CEV secret. (Thanks to XRayDog for the heads-up.)