Jargon Watch: Astronauts And The Language Of Space Travel

What the heck is “puffy head bird legs”?
October 5, 2020
Jargon Watch: Astronauts And The Language Of Space Travel

“5-4-3-2-1-0 booster ignition and liftoff!” You’ve probably heard the familiar sounds of a spaceship launch countdown at some point, but there are plenty of other space-related words and phrases that may be totally unintelligible to you. Astronaut lingo has been around as long as NASA itself. In fact, some of the earliest space slang was pretty hilarious, like referring to Cape Canaveral as “Malfunction Junction” or an astronaut’s adjustable seat as a “barber chair.”

Astronaut lingo has toned down quite a bit since the 1960s, and now it largely comprises jargon words and acronyms to describe technical aspects of spaceships and interstellar travel. While most of it’s only really useful if you plan to join NASA, there are a few pieces of slang that have made it into our general lexicon. What may have started in outer space eventually became popular among civilians down on Earth. 

This list, which is by no means comprehensive, will introduce you to some of the most common or interesting astronaut lingo. And if you can’t get enough of outer space linguistics, check out this explanation of where some common space exploration terms originated.

A Brief Guide To Astronaut Lingo

abort — to cut short or cancel a mission, first used in reference to space-flight in 1946

airlock — a room with two doors that allows astronauts to enter and exit a spacecraft without letting air out

command module — the compartment of a spacecraft that carries the crew, communications equipment and controls

downlink — radio signal sent to Earth from a spacecraft

glitch — a hitch, snag or malfunction; now used universally

keyhole — a part of the sky where an antenna cannot track a spacecraft due to technical limitations

liftoff — when a rocket leaves the launch pad and begins its flight into space

L minus (L-) — refers to the days, hours and minutes left until launch (L-0). T minus (T-) refers to the time remaining until launch on the official countdown clock. L- time and T- time are usually synced.

LOX — stands for liquid oxygen, which, when combined with fuel, creates a propellant that can be used to launch a rocket

nadir — the downward direction from a spacecraft to the center of a planet below (opposite the zenith)

puffy head bird legs — the feeling of a congested head and wobbly legs astronauts get upon the loss of gravity, which allows the fluid in their bodies to move around

screw the pooch — to make an embarrassing mistake (and yes, this phrase did originally come from NASA)

some wordsinstructions or advice given between astronauts and ground control, as in “We have some words for you about the signal light issue”

Spacecraft Event Time (SCET) — local time for events that happen aboard the spacecraft  (the time on Earth minus the elapsed time between Earth and the spacecraft)

uplink — radio signal sent to a spacecraft from Earth

zenith — the point on a planet directly above the spacecraft (opposite the nadir)

zero gravity — the weightlessness astronauts experience in space due to an apparent absence of gravity (though gravity is still technically in effect)

Header Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

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Dylan Lyons
Dylan is a senior content producer, overseeing video and podcast projects for the U.S. team. He studied journalism at Ithaca College and previously managed social media for CBS News. He’s currently pursuing his MBA part-time at NYU Stern. His interests include podcasts, puppies, politics, alliteration, reading, writing, and dessert. Dylan lives in New York City.
Dylan is a senior content producer, overseeing video and podcast projects for the U.S. team. He studied journalism at Ithaca College and previously managed social media for CBS News. He’s currently pursuing his MBA part-time at NYU Stern. His interests include podcasts, puppies, politics, alliteration, reading, writing, and dessert. Dylan lives in New York City.

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