On September 8, 1966, Star Trek was broadcast on network television for the very first time. The public birth of this sci-fi juggernaut is pretty much a national holiday for Trekkies. And though 51 years of going boldly might not be as fancy as last year’s mega 50th anniversary, it’s still nothing to shake a phaser at. With that in mind, one way for Trekkies to celebrate is by reveling in the characters of Star Trek seldom discussed in depth— the starships themselves. Trek creator Gene Roddenberry often said the true main character of the original Trek was the starship Enterprise, and now with the launch of Discovery just weeks away, another starship is poised to take the cosmic spotlight.
But why are all the Star Trek ships named what they are? Where do those names come from? If you want to know why many Starfleet vessels have the prefix “NCC” before their registry number, there isn’t a very good answer. Everyone involved with Trek has always said that “NCC” is meaningless. “USS” on the other hand stands either for “United Space Ship” or “United Star Ship.”
But, if you want to know why each ship has the moniker that it does, here’s a list of fifteen of Trek’s boldest starships, each with their secret name origin explained.
15. USS Yamato
A sister ship to the USS Enterprise-D, the Yamato was seen briefly in The Next Generation episode “Contagion.” It was named after a Japanese WWII aircraft carrier, but, some believe it was also named for the anime Space Battleship Yamato, sometimes called StarBlazers. Most official Trek books deny the second influence but it seems way too cool to be a coincidence.
14. USS Saratoga
There are two ships called the Saratoga in Trek canon and they look exactly the same. The first one appeared in Star Trek: IV: The Voyage Home. But the second one, and probably a little more famous was the ship Ben Sisko was serving aboard when he fought the Borg at the Battle of Wolf 359. This incident served as the prologue for all of Deep Space Nine, and as such, created the entire character of Sisko as we knew him.
But where did the name come from? The most likely answer is both Saratogas were named after a 1780 early American ship named USS Saratoga. Here’s the funny thing: this real life ship disappeared without a trace in 1781. Meaning, a Star Trek episode in which this ship comes out of a time vortex into the future is just waiting to happen.
13. USS Grissom
In Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, a science vessel with David Marcus and Saavik aboard hits up the planet Genesis. And even though Grissom has a lame captain and a sad fate, its name comes from historic NASA astronaut Gus Grissom. He flew for NASA during the Mercury program and was the first NASA astronaut to go into space twice.
12. USS Kelvin
In an alternate timeline, created by J.J. Abrams, James T. Kirk wasn’t born in Iowa, he was born in space! In the 2009 Star Trek reboot, George Kirk — Jim’s father — served on the USS Kelvin. This name comes from a friend of J.J. Abrams. That’s the whole origin. Abrams puts the word “Kelvin” in all of his movies. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey mentions “Kelvin ridge.”
11. Akira-class Starships
Several ships that battled the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact were called Akira-class ships. Though this name didn’t show up on-screen, it is in all the official Star Trek books. And it 100 percent is inspired by the seminal sci-fi Anime film, Akira.
10. USS Defiant
Like the Saratoga, there are two ships named USS Defiant in Trek canon. But, they look wildly different and serve very different plot functions. The first one comes from the Original Series episode “The Tholian Web,” and was sister of ship of the classic Enterprise. In a bit of a sci-fi double whammy, the Defiant was transported to another dimension and sent back in time. Meaning, after its first appearance in the classic series, it reappeared in the evil “Mirror Universe” on Star Trek: Enterprise. This happened in a two-parter called “In a Mirror Darkly,” which was mostly an excuse for actors in 2005 and wear ‘60s-style Trek go-go boots and skin-tight tunics.
The second Defiant was the main-ride for the Deep Space Nine crew. This ship was a badass warship designed to fight the Borg. It could turn invisible with its cloaking device and was beloved by everyone. Seriously, Trekkies fucking love the Defiant. The second Defiant was probably named for the first one in Trek canon, but both ships are most likely named after several, several British ships throughout history all called HMS Defiance.
9. DS9’s Runabouts
Before space station Deep Space Nine got a smooth getaway vehicle called the Defiant, it was equipped with three souped-up shuttlecraft called “Runabouts.” To make these ships seems more legit — and less lame — each one had an ostentatious name. USS Rio Grande, USS Ganges, USS Yangtze Kiang. and so forth. But why? Turns out all these ships were named after rivers on Earth. In fact, the whole type of ship was called Danube-class.
Could the whole “Danube” thing be a roundabout reference to the use of Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” in the classic sci-fi movie 2001: A Space Oddessy? I don’t know. Is Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s name a reference to French New Wave cinematic genius Jean-Luc Godard? Seems like if Star Trek is as cool as we think it is, the answer to both questions is: yes, of course.
8. USS Reliant
This one is a bit of a misnomer insofar as the Reliant wasn’t very reliable. After being commandeered by Khan, the Reliant became the instrument of his infamous wrath against James T. Kirk. Like both versions of the Saratoga the Reliant was designated as a “Miranda-class” starship, which is a reference to the Shakespeare character Miranda from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The name Reliant itself probably originates with the civil war era steamship named Reliance.
Like the Reliant in Star Trek, the Reliance was forced to switch sides in 1890. It began as a Union ship but was captured by the Confederacy during the US Civil War. And just like Khan destroyed the Reliant as a final act of vengeance, Confederate soldiers eventually destroyed the Reliance to prevent it from being recaptured by the Union.
7. USS Excelsior
In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Excelsior is introduced to sort of freak everyone out. This ship has transwarp drive which was never really explained and didn’t get referenced all that often in canon later. Scotty is so huffy about the newness and badassness of the Excelsior that he straight-up sabotages it. Interestingly, during the DC comics ongoing Star Trek run in the mid ‘80s, after they blew up the Enterprise, the majority of the crew actually relocated to the Excelsior somewhat permanently. This sort of explains why Sulu thinks they are going to all get posted to the Excelsior in Star Trek IV.
By Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Sulu is straight-up in command of the Excelsior at which point it’s treated as a much bigger version of the old Enterprise. The name origin is a little dicey, but possibly axiomatic. Because the root of the word “Excelsior” means “higher” in Latin, it stands to reason that Starfleet thought a ship that would go faster could get this name. “Excelsior!” was also an occasional catchphrase of Marvel comics guru Stan Lee. Though there is no direct evidence Stan Lee influenced the naming of this starship, it’s better than thinking it was named after a series of hotels.
6. USS Stargazer
Before he commanded the Enterprise-D, Jean-Luc Picard’s first captaincy was the USS Stargazer. He even kept a small model of the ship in his ready room across from his desk. The Stargazer was seemingly a cross between the Miranda-class ships and the older, original series Constitution-class ships. It was one of the few Trek ships from Starfleet to have four warp nacelle engines, which honestly, just feels a little escessive.
While one might assume the ship was named after the Neil Diamond song “Stargazer” (no one assumes that) this one’s name is probably easy to figure out. A stargazer is another term for an astronomer. Most of these Starfleet ships are supposed to be all about exploring space.
5. USS Voyager
After The Next Generation, every single Trek series — including Discovery — is named after the place or ship where everything happens. Obviously, this was true of USS Voyager. Like the Defiant on DS9, the USS Voyager was smaller than some of the previous Star Trek ships. But, this one was more all purpose and was equipped with special warp engines that made it more ecologically friendly to the universe. Basically, Voyager was the Prius of Starfleet ships.
The name origin on this one is pretty awesome: NASA’s famous two probes that photographed Jupiter and Saturn were both called Voyager.
4. USS Shenzhou
We don’t know much about Captain Georgiou’s Walker-class ship the Shenzhou, but we do know where its name comes from. In real life, the Chinese space program has named several of it spacecraft Shenzhou. The loose English translation is “magic boat” or “divine craft.” Hopefully, this ship will make it out of the pilot episode of Star Trek: Discovery, but honestly, things aren’t looking so good on that front.
In the 22nd century timeline of Star Trek: Enterprise, the very first “Warp 5” ship was named the Enterprise. This mirrored real NASA history because the first space shuttle was named Enterprise. In NASA history, the second space shuttle ever was named Columbia. And so, Star Trek mirrored shuttle history again when it introduced the second warp 5 ship, named Columbia, in honor of the space shuttle.
Like Columbia and Enterprise, the newest big-deal starship in Star Trek also seems to be named after a space shuttle. And, if you’re following space shuttles chronologically, Discovery was the space shuttle commissioned after the Challenger. The space shuttle Discovery is also responsible carrying and launching the Hubble Space Telescope.
Whether or not the show Star Trek: Discovery acknowledges the connection outright, it seems fairly obvious that we’re meant to infer that Starfleet honors early Earth space-exploration by naming two ships on the new show — Shenzhou and Discovery — after real spacecraft.
Here’s where things get meta. The most famous Star Trek ship — the starship Enterprise — is kind of named after itself! In the future history of Star Trek, according to the show Enterprise the first warp 5 ship is named Enterprise. This seems to be because the first NASA space shuttle test-orbiter was named Enterprise. But…the only reason NASA did that was that countless Trekkies started a letter-writing campaign in 1976 to name the shuttle Enterprise, in honor of the original series ship. The opening credits of Enterprise clearly show footage of this name unveiling ceremony, which seems to imply that Star Trek the show somehow exists in the continuity of Star Trek the fictional universe. In the latter, after the first Enterprise, there were six more. Or maybe even more than that. There are a lot of Enterprises.
Why did Trek creator Gene Roddenberry call the ship Enterprise, to begin with? Some legend has it that Roddenberry initially wanted to call the ship the Yorktown because he wanted a strong naval-tradition associated with Starfleet. The Yorktown was a US naval vessel that was destroyed during World War II. But, there is also a long history of US sailing ships being named Enterprise. In fact, the US naval ship that received the most awards and honors during WWII was the Enterprise.
The next US aircraft carrier named Enterprise was the first one to run on nuclear power. This is referenced in Star Trek IV when the crew heads back in time to 1986. Chekov and Uhura sneak onboard the then-contemporary Enterprise to sap some nuclear power in order to jumpstart their own broken spaceship. Which, is perhaps the most beautiful metaphor ever for the relationship between real ships and Star Trek ships.
Star Trek: Discovery — which will probably have even more new ships than just the Discovery and Shenzhou — debuts on September 24 on CBS All-Access.