Where did the baby names Gemini and Agena come from in the mid-1960s?

American astronaut Ed White performing a spacewalk (June 1965)
Ed White’s spacewalk

The name Yuri first appeared in the U.S. baby name data in the early ’60s, and the name Aldrin showed up in the late ’60s. But these aren’t the only two Space Race baby names that popped up on the charts during that decade.

The name Gemini, for instance, first appeared in the U.S. baby name data 1965. The name Agena followed a year later.

Girls named GeminiGirls named Agena

(Gemini would go on to reappear in the data, but Agena, the top one-hit wonder of 1966, remains a one-hit wonder to this day.)

Where did these two names come from?

They were inspired by NASA’s Project Gemini, which featured ten crewed spaceflights that took place from March of 1965 to November of 1966. Here are several highlights of the program:

  • On June 3, 1965, Ed White of became the first American to perform a spacewalk. He spent more than twenty minutes outside of the Gemini 4 capsule.
  • On December 16, 1965, U.S. television audiences witnessed the first live coverage of a spaceflight recovery following the splashdown of Gemini 6 in the western Atlantic Ocean.
  • On March 16, 1966, the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit was achieved when Gemini 8 docked with the Agena Target Vehicle — an unmanned spacecraft built specifically for this purpose.
The Agena Target Vehicle as seen from Gemini 8 (Mar. 1966)
Agena Target Vehicle

So how did Project Gemini and the Agena Target Vehicle get their names?

Gemini, which means “twins” in Latin, was chosen a nod to several things: the two-man crews of the Project Gemini missions, the fact that Gemini was NASA’s second human spaceflight program (after Mercury), and because one of the objectives of the program was to achieve a space rendezvous that involved two spacecraft.

Agena was named after the bright star Agena (a.k.a. Beta Centauri) in the constellation Centaurus. The name “Agena” is thought to have been coined by Connecticut astronomer Elijah H. Burritt (1794-1838) from the Greek words alpha, “first,” and gena, “knee,” as the star marks the knee of one of the centaur’s front legs.

Which do you like better as a baby name, Gemini or Agena?


Images: Ed White First American Spacewalker (NASA), The First Docking in Space (NASA)

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