NASA is defending itself against criticism that it knew Ultima Thule had a Nazi connection, but used it anyway.
Dr. Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and principal investigator on the New Horizons mission, told a reporter Wednesday that Ultima Thule, the nickname for the icy, deeply radiated object in the Kuiper Belt, is a nod to “raw exploration,” not its use in the belief system adopted by members of the Nazi party. The New Horizons space probe passed by the object, some 4 billion miles away, on New Year’s Day.
The controversial term isn’t one left to history; a Swedish rock band grouped with white power music is named Ultima Thule, for instance. But it’s not easy to find the term being used often online in relation to the alt-right or modern hate groups.
“I’ve said it a number of times,” Stern said. “I think New Horizons is … one of the best examples in our time of raw exploration.”
“The term ‘Ultima Thule,’ which is very old, many centuries old, possibly over 1,000 years old, is a wonderful meme for exploration, and that’s why we chose it. I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let them hijack it.”
His stirring comments received applause from the audience, as seen in the video above, but reporting on the naming process shows NASA knew about the dark historical connotation and chose to stick with it. The name came from an online suggestion process. It’s Latin and can be translated as “a distant unknown region; the extreme limit of travel and discovery.”
Ultima Thule (official name:
2014 MU69) looks like a snowman or BB-8 from Star Wars. It’s the farthest-away object a human-made craft has ever passed, and it is this year’s first symbol of space exploration. According to NASA’s latest report, the two spheres that make up the object (the bigger one is Ultima; the smaller is Thule) “likely joined as early as 99 percent of the way back to the formation of the solar system, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender.”
In March, when NASA announced that New Horizons would head next for Ultima Thule, journalist Meghan Bartels first reported on the name and its Nazi connection for Newsweek.
As Bartels reported in the spring, the name “dates back to fourth century Europe and references a mythological land far to the north, someplace distant and cold.” Later, this mythical land in the north older than time was adopted as the homeland of the Aryan race by the Thule Society, which sponsored the group that would become the Nazi Party. The story again took off as New Horizons flew by the object on New Year’s Day.
Science journalist Shannon Stirone summed up opposition to NASA’s point of view expressed by Stern on Wednesday this way: “This is beyond unacceptable.”
Her sentiment was retweeted more than 160 times, liked 386 times, and received more than 78 replies. She also says she became the target of harassment for her comments, saying it was mostly men writing to tell her what an “an ignorant jerk I am for bringing this up” and that she “got a lot of nasty messages from men shaming me for sharing the article during the flyby even, implying that I had malicious intent to detract from the excitement of the mission.”
“The fact that the team knowingly chose the name despite its Nazi connections was what struck me as careless and in bad taste,” Stirone tells Inverse. “That statement is what I have been getting the most flack for. But I think that name was a bad choice.”
Stirone made her Twitter account private but has since made it public again. Bartels, who wrote about Stern’s latest comments for Space.com, has also made her account private and noted to a follower on Twitter that she was being cautious.
With reporting by Yasmin Tayag. Email the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.