This question is NOT about a fictional planet:

This question is about NASA JPL history and the naming of SPICE. It is not primarily about the fictional planet Arrakis nor the fictional drug Melange also known as Spice.

Background: why this might be true:

The science fiction work Dune was written by Frank Herbert and first published in 1965. It has had widespread acclaim, been followed by several more books in a series by the same author and has had several movie adaptations. Spice features prominently in it and is well known among SciFi geekdom, some of who are known to work at NASA and specifically JPL (e.g. "mostly harmless")

Evidence of Prior Research:

From Spice History found in About Spice

SPICE History

In 1982 The National Research Council's Committee on Data Management and Computation (CODMAC) issued a report [Ref 1] detailing problems with and providing recommendations for the archival treatment of data returned from NASA's Space Science Missions. Included in this report was an admonition to properly collect and archive the ancillary (engineering) information needed to fully and correctly interpret data returned from space science instruments.

In response to the CODMAC report NASA convened a Planetary Data Workshop [Ref. 2], chaired by Dr. Hugh Kieffer of the United States Geological Survey, Astrogeology Branch. Discussions by interested scientists at and subsequent to this meeting resulted in the concept-unnamed at that point-of carefully archiving the fundamental ancillary data sets that are needed to derive the viewing geometry parameters such as lighting angles and latitude/longitude typically needed in analyzing space science data.

In the months following the Workshop the concept was further articulated under the leadership of Dr. Kieffer. At that moment NASA Headquarters was forming a number of "pilot" space science data systems to implement the CODMAC recommendations. Associated with the Pilot Planetary Data System was an ancillary information system. The leader of this activity, Charles Acton, worked with Kieffer and the other scientists, and new staff members, to refine the ancillary information system concept. Kieffer coined the "SPICE" acronym to identify the major system components, and the SPICE system was born.

Question: Was the famous SPICE package of programs, utilities and data kernels named after "Melange", otherwise known as Spice, found on the fictional planet Arrakis from the Dune series of books by author Frank Herbert?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There's also a SPICE software package for electronic circuit analysis, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SPICE, and ASPICE documents for " Automotive Software Performance Improvement and Capability dEtermination " . I suspect lots of people just like the word. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2021 at 12:16
  • $\begingroup$ And en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2021 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft I have always suspected that UC Berkeley's SPICE from the early 1970's was also named after Dune's spice from the mid 1960's. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jan 26, 2021 at 12:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It is possible as NASA has used television, movies, and science fiction as the basis for names of lots of things. Some examples are the Alice and Ralph instruments on the New Horizons spacecraft, which are characters from The Honeymooners; the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which was named after the vehicle on Star Trek; The COLBERT exercise bicycle on the ISS, which was named after Steven Colbert; ... The list goes on and on. However, I suspect that SPICE was not named after spice. The goal of backronyming is to find a nice spicy name as the acronym. SPICE is rather ... spicy. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2021 at 13:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I suspect this is one of those questions that will remain unanswered. Hugh Keifer, the person who coined the name, did not work for JPL; he worked for the United States Geological Survey and apparently was placed on loan to JPL for a few months to get the project started. @MarkAdler might know of the origin, or maybe not. Mark started working at JPL eight or so years after the name was given. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2021 at 15:31

1 Answer 1


According to this, SPICE stands for

  • Spacecraft ephemeris
  • Planet (plus moon, comet, asteroid) ephemerides
  • Instruments (geometric information such as field-of-view, shape, orientation)
  • C-matrix (spacecraft attitude and rate)
  • Events (mission activities, e.g. TCMs)

All this "to assist NASA scientists in planning and interpreting scientific observations from space-borne instruments, and to assist NASA engineers involved in modeling, planning and executing activities needed to conduct planetary explorations missions."

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This does not answer the question. SPICE is obviously a backronym. @uhoh is asking for the reason for choosing that name, and in particular, if the name was motivated by "spice" (melange) that runs throughout Frank Herbert's books about Dune. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2021 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, you're right -- my answer does not address the actual question. $\endgroup$
    – Bob Werner
    Jan 26, 2021 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ I have to disagree. It doesn't seem particularly obvious, nor necessarily even true that SPICE was a backronym at all. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2021 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh: A backronym normally means you start with the name, and only afterwards think up some words for it to stand for. No,coming up with SPICE probably wasn't purely accidental--but it wouldn't surprise me if they had (say) C, E, I and P, and somebody did something vaguely like playing Scrabble, and thought: "if I add an S, it'll be easy to make a recognizable word" --or they may have even started with something like "V" for "vehicle" and thought "if I chance vehicle to spacecraft", I can make a word. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2021 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ But, to be at all sure it was a backronym, you'd normally see two things: the "result" being obviously relevant, and the wording to achieve that being at least a little strained. So if they'd come up SPACE instead of SPICE, based on "instrumentAtion", you'd have a lot better case that it was a backronym, or they had at least stretched things out of shape (so to speak) to get the word they wanted. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2021 at 2:10

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