The first launcher project was known in French as ‘Lanceur à Trois Etages de Substitution’, or LIIIS. At a meeting in 1977, ESA delegates were asked to come up with a new name. Dr Peter Creola, formerly Head of the Swiss Space Office (SSO) and Swiss delegate to ESA Council, tells the story.
“On the day after the final meeting in Brussels, the Swiss delegation seized this opportunity to propose that the unwieldy working name of the launcher, L3S (which stood for ‘lanceur de troisième génération de substitution’), be replaced by a definitive and more attractive name. Only the French delegate, André Lebeau, backed Switzerland.
“All the others did not think the name of the launcher was important. However, I insisted that it was, and passed around a sheet of paper on which delegates could suggest names. Some of these were simply jokes, like ‘William Tell’ and ‘Edelweiss’, which came about because the meeting was being held on 1 August 1973, the Swiss national holiday.
“Other suggestions, such as ‘Orion’ and ‘Vega’, were more usable. The latter name came up three times, and it therefore won the informal competition. A name had still not, however, been officially decided upon. In the text of the launcher agreement, which was still under negotiation, the name of the launcher was left blank.
“Then, in September 1973, the day came when the documentation of the agreement had to be approved by the Administrative and Finance Committee. By coincidence, I was chairing this committee. When I proposed that we now bite the bullet and insert the name Vega in the text, the French delegation objected. French minister Jean Charbonnel pointed out that Vega was the name of a French beer.
“The French deemed only three names to be acceptable: ‘Penelope’, ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Ariane’. The German delegation immediately objected to Phoenix, because the ashes of ELDO were still hot.
"Penelope was also thought to be unsuitable, and so Ariane was chosen [Ariane is the French version of the Greek mythological character Ariadne, whose famous thread led the way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth]. Nobody could have foreseen that, almost 30 years later, ESA’s small launcher would be called Vega.”