How the SpaceX Drone Ships Got Their Sci-Fi Names

Here's where those curious names came from.


SpaceX is a spaceflight company focused on building big-ass rockets capable of taking people to Mars, but it’s also a strangely famous purveyor of so-called “drone ships,” autonomous platforms floating in the ocean. By now, the world has seen the company manage to vertically land several rockets on one its two ocean drone ships. Chances are pretty good you’ve probably heard their very-peculiar names:

  • Just Read the Instructions
  • Of Course I Still Love You

You’re probably asking: what the hell kind of names are those?

See, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is a pretty big fan of science fiction. One need look no further than his adoration for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for proof. He literally named his company’s future Mars-bound spacecraft Heart of Gold for this reason.

Naturally, Musk would find other ways to reference his most favorite sci-fi works in other ways. That’s what the drone ships are named for, the late Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.

Here’s the book’s official synopsis:

The Culture — a human/machine symbiotic society — has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh. Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game…a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life — and very possibly his death.

Seems thrilling, right?

The autonomous drone ships used by SpaceX are named after the sentient ships in Banks’s The Player of Games, first published in 1988 Here’s the relevant passage from the book:

He had a sudden, paranoid idea. He turned to Chamlis urgently. ‘These friends of yours are ships.’
‘Yes,’ Chamlis said. ‘Both of them.’
‘What are they called?’
‘The Of Course I Still Love You and the Just Read The Instructions.’
‘They’re not warships?’
‘With names like that? They’re [General Contact Units, a type of ship used primarily for exploration and communication]; what else?’
‘Good,’ Gurgeh said, relaxing a little, looking out to the square again. ‘Good. That’s all right.’ He took a deep breath.

The Player of Games book cover.

Musk explained the names of the ships in a tweet in January 2015:

Of Course I Still Love You operates off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean and is a landing platform for Falcon 9 rockets launched from Launchpad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Just Read the Instructions does the same job on the other side of the United States, serving as bobbing landing pad for Falcon 9 rockets launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California.

Both ships have seen their fair share of action, but this weekend will feature both drone ships being used in landing attempts in two different Falcon 9 missions.

Why Does SpaceX Use Drone Ships?

SpaceX’s preferred method to land rockets is to use drone ships when the mission calls for it. Drone ships are sometimes preferred over landing pads because their position relative to the position of where the rocket separates from the nose cone is closer than a terrestrial landing pad, so the rocket doesn’t need as much fuel, can make a shorter trip back to Earth, and is lighter and cheaper as a result.

Alos, its tougher in some instances to bring rockets back from higher altitudes, and a drone ship can give some leeway into allowing a rocket to aim for a target area rather than a specific bullseye for landing.

Hopefully the entire ground crew is reading the instructions well enough to avoid any mishaps, but even if the missions and landings don’t go as planned, we’ll still love SpaceX.

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