The Naming of Santa Maria and Spaceship America

Columbus Coat of Arms . . . Apollo 17 Emblem

It was the custom for medieval explorers to name lands of discovery. However, Columbus's ships came to him already named. For this reason, Columbus played no role in naming ships of his fleet. However, NASA's astronauts had the latitude of selecting names for their craft. The selection of America as the name of Apollo 17's command ship uniquely relates to Columbus's 1492 voyage of discovery.

Why was the United States named America when its continental land mass was discovered by Columbus? A more appropriate name for the nation would have been Columbia. This would have honored the discoverer of the New World. The name America honored explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Though Vespucci landed later, his name received the honor due Christopher Columbus.

Each Apollo astronaut team assisted in reporting their findings at the conclusion of the mission. Likewise, Columbus, sailing home from his first voyage drafted a description of his findings (Feb. 1493) known as Columbus's Letter. The letter, printed in Latin, published the news throughout Europe within 6 weeks of Columbus's return. And yet, a publication fourteen years later determined the naming of the New World.

Episol de insulis nuper inventis [printed letter] Library of Congress

Waldseemuller's World Map (1507)

The above map drawn by the cosmographer Martin Waldseemuller made an important contribution to world cartography. Waldseemuller depicted Columbus's discoveries as part of an independent continent separated from Asia by a vast expanse of ocean. However, Waldseemuller's map contradicted itself. North and South America were connected on the insert and separated by a passage of water in the all encompassing view. (See below insert.)

Though Columbus believed his finds were an extension of Asia, his final fourth voyage sought the water passage to Asia. His thinking had the Asia that Europeans knew across this passage. Waldseemuller suggests a passage on the large view and ignores it on the insert (below). In a sense, Waldseemuller's map was a prophesy of the Panama Canal.

The above insert, from a first of its kind world map, played a significant part in the naming of the United States which led to the name of America for Gene Cernan's lunar craft. Note the inclusion of explorer Amerigo Vespucci to the right of the insert of Waldseemuller's map.

But most amazing about Waldseemuller's prophetic mapping was the shape he ascribed to South America. With no knowledge of the continent's western boundaries, he sketched an astoundingly accurate outline of the continent.

While Columbus refused to accept his discoveries as a separate continental land mass even unto his death, a later cartographer named Amerigo Vespucci sailed on board an expeditionary vessel to Novis Orbis (South America) in 1504. On Vespucci's return, Waldseemuller's mapping society embraced the idea that what Columbus had discovered and Vespucci visited was, indeed, an independent continent. They published Vespucci's letter reporting his voyage and belief in an independent continent. The pamphlet was widely distributed throughout Europe exceeding distribution of Columbus's letter of 1493.

Finally, Waldseemuller steered the naming of the continent visited by Vespucci by including the above insert on the 1507 map of the world. Along with the 1507 map, Waldseemuller published an accompanying work called Introduction to Cartography. Herein, he urged the continent visited by Vespucci be called America in honor of Vespucci. While it is certain Vespucci was not first to visit the continent of North America, Waldseemuller only intended his name be ascribed to what we now know as South America as shown on Waldseemuller's world map. However, Vespucci's promotion of his own deeds were widely spread through the endorsements, publications and world map of Waldseemuller.

Later, the continent to the north also came to be named in honor of Vespucci rather than the actual discoverer, Christopher Columbus. In defense of Vespucci, scholars have demonstrated that Waldseemuller, not Amerigo, was largely responsible for the eventual naming of the United States as America. Waldseemuller was troubled. His zealous endorsement of Vespucci had led to the naming of the northern land mass discovered by Columbus in honor of Vespucci. To right the wrong, Waldseemuller published a later world map. The new edition deleted erroneous references to America. Nevertheless, the 1000 original copies had done the deed. Both continents would carry the name America.

As the final journey, Americans would take to the Moon, Cernan and his crewmates wanted to honor the country who sponsored the voyages of lunar exploration. They named their mother ship America. However, Columbus had not been forgotten. The first craft which ferried the first astronauts to walk on the Moon was named COLUMBIA!

Questions for Discussion:

1. Speculate on the naming of the United States given that the printing press had not been invented.

2. Do you think it is fair that the United States is named America ? Why or why not? If not, what name would you have chosen for the nation and why?

3. What name would you have given the first craft to land on the Moon? Why would you have chosen that name?


1. Boorstin, Daniel J., The Discoverers, New York, Random House, Inc., 1983. pp. 249-254.
2. Morison, Samuel, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, copyright Samuel Eliot Morison, 1970.

Return to Home Port Mate.

Last modified: Monday, 28-Aug-00 04:00:00 PM CDT

Author: Jerry Woodfill / NASA, Mail Code ER7,

Curator: Cecilia Breigh, NASA JSC ER7

Responsible Official: Charles Gott, NASA JSC ER7

Automation, Robotics and Simulation Division, Walter W. Guy, Chief.