A Terrier Improved-Malemute actually. 1. Astronautix, 2. Gunter's Space Page, 3. Wikipedia, 4. NASA pdf. According to Space.com's Watch a NASA Rocket Create Colorful Artificial Clouds Over US East Coast Tonight! that is the type of sounding rocket that will be used. I went to look up the name because it sounds like a mixed canine breed (Malamute's alternate spelling per Merriam-Webster online), and at Astronatix I found there is an amazing variety of sounding rocket names.

Terrier Terrier Oriole: Three stage vehicle consisting of 1 x Terrier + 1 x Terrier + 1 x Oriole

Taurus Nike Tomahawk: Three stage vehicle consisting of 1 x Taurus (Honest John motor) + 1 x Nike + 1 x Tomahawk.

Tater: Three stage vehicle consisting of 1 x Talos + 1 x Terrier + 1 x Recruit

How were names like Terrier, Malemute, Nike, Oriole selected for these apparently nearly interchangeable mix-and-match stages for sounding rockets? More importantly, when assembling a rocket for a given launch, how are the individual stages selected for a given mission? Paging through Astronautix it looks like quite a variety of mixes were named and launched over the last 50 years. Are they just stacked to match the mass and altitude required for the payload, or is there more flexibility available for specific mission needs?

enter image description here

above: "The ampoule doors on the sounding rocket payload are open during testing at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Terrier-Improved Malemute rocket is scheduled to launch at 9:04 p.m. EDT on June 11, 2017." Cropped from Space.com's Watch a NASA Rocket Create Colorful Artificial Clouds Over US East Coast Tonight!. Credit: Berit Bland/NASA

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    $\begingroup$ Many of these are reused motors from missiles, and take their names from there. Tartar, Terrier, Talos are USN surface-to-air missiles, Nike is an old army SAM. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Jun 12 '17 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbes ...and so Tomahawk in the just-added "Taurus Nike Tomahawk" may not be just coincident naming? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 12 '17 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ Tomahawk will be a coincidence: the cruise missile uses a jet engine, not a rocket. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Jun 12 '17 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure which would go on top. And the dog breed is Malamute (actually Alaskan Malamute), not Malemute. Not sure if that applies to rocket engines as well. $\endgroup$ – user Jun 12 '17 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ The Nike missile had its own family of names as well: Nike Zeus, Nike Ajax, Nike Hercules. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jun 12 '17 at 23:02
How were names like Terrier, Malemute, Nike, Oriole selected [...] for sounding rockets?

Terrier, et al.

It appears many of the early solid rocket motors proposed for the U.S. Navy Bumblebee Project -- from the late World War II era until the early 1960s -- originated in Section T of the Research and Development Division of the Bureau of Ordnance (with the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University acting as the "Central Laboratory" for Section T)1.

It appears it was from the moniker "Section T" that many of those early solid rocket motors received their name: e.g.: Talos, Tartar/Terrier, Triton2, Typhon.

Malemute, et al.

Named for "the Alaskan Eskimo people" 3, the naming of the Malemute continued the tradition of Thiokol Corporation choosing names (Cajun, Apache, Tomahawk, etc.) they considered to be thematically Native American.

The project's manager, Joseph G. Thibodaux, Jr., formerly of Louisiana, suggested the new motor be named "Cajun" because of the term's Louisiana associations. It was the name of persons in that region reputed to be of mixed Acadian French and Indian or Negro blood. Allen E. Williams, Director of Engineering in Thiokol Chemical Corporation's Elkton (Md.) Division, agreed to the name, and later the Elkton Division decided to continue giving its rocket motors Indian-related names.


The Nike solid rocket motor was adapted from the Nike anti-aircraft missile designed by Hercules Powder Company 3. Nike is a Greek goddess personifying victory.

1 See: 'Bumblebee Initial Report' & 'Semiannual (1950 Mar) Report' (declassified)

2 Unlike the other Bumblebee "T" motors designed for SAM service, the Triton was conceived as an SSM, the similarity being its ramjet sustainer like that of Talos.

3 See: 'SP-4402 Origins of NASA Names', Section V, Sounding Rockets

how are the individual stages selected for a given mission?

As it concerns the NASA Sounding Rocket Program, the various vehicles are chosen for (in no particular order):

  • the altitude they can achieve given a particular payload's mass

e.g. (https://sites.wff.nasa.gov/code810/vehicles/Terrier_Malemute.pdf)

The Terrier-Malemute launch vehicle is a high performance two-stage vehicle used for payloads weighing less than 400 pounds.

  • acceptable reliability (flight history; e.g. the Black Brant Mk III motor, with known thrust instabilities [ref. needed], continued regular service for lack a better replacement)
  • their cost of acquisition (many motors, e.g. Terrier are military surplus from their previous SAM incarnation; hence, essentially free)

Some NASA launch facilities (White Sands Missile Range, for example) limit the altitude any given sounding rocket may travel due to the increasing hazards of (unguided) re-entry dispersion that comes with achieving a higher apogee.

Another great resource: NASA Sounding Rockets User Handbook

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  • $\begingroup$ Hey it looks like I've hit the jackpot! Thanks for the really clear and well supported answer! I'm going to take some time and read through the NASA Sounding Rockets User Handbook over the next few days. This is excellent! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 9 '18 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Added partial answer to 1st question; will hunt for more when time allows :) $\endgroup$ – quasinormalized Apr 10 '18 at 4:56
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh Added yet more $\endgroup$ – quasinormalized Apr 11 '18 at 23:45

To add to @quasinormalized's excellent and thorough answer I'll quote Origins of NASA Names, NASA SP-4402

MALEMUTE. The Malemute, a rocket second stage, was developed in 1974 in an interagency program with NASA, Sandia Laboratories, and the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories as sponsoring agencies. Designed to be flown with either the Nike or the Terrier first stage, the Malemute began flight tests in 1974. It was named for the Alaskan Eskimo people by the contractor, Thiokol Corporation, in Thiokol's tradition of using Indian-related names (see Cajun).1

The Nike-Malemute sounding rocket would be able to lift a 90-kilogram payload to 500 kilometers; the Terrier-Malemute would lift the same payload to 700 kilometers. The new vehicles were intended to replace the Javelin and Black Brant IV rockets in the NASA inventory.2

1, William J. Bolster, Flight Performance Branch, Sounding Rocket Division, GSFC, in­ formation sent to Historical Office, NASA, 30 Jan. 1975; and R. Gilbert Moore and John M. McGarry, Astro-Met Plant, Thiokol Corp., joint telephone interview, 21 May 1975.

2, Bolster, information sent Historical Office.


TERRIER. The Terrier, a rocket first stage used by NASA, was developed by Hercules Powder Company as the first stage of the Navy's Terrier antiaircraft missile, and NASA inherited the name. NASA used it with the Malemute second stage, as the Terrier-Malemute.1

1, Edward E. Mayo, Flight Performance Branch, Sounding Rocket Division, GSFC, in­ formation sent to Historical Office, NASA, 30 Jan. 1975.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the cool document link alone! $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Feb 4 at 23:28
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble I had a hunch you (and others) would find it interesting. I stumbled upon it just now while writing this comment. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 4 at 23:31

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