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The proper names of most stars date back hundreds or even thousands of years. They were bestowed by the skywatchers of the ancient Mediterranean. But the brightest star of one prominent star picture was bestowed only about half a century ago.
Navi is the middle star in the letter M or W that marks Cassiopeia the queen. It’s the brightest of the letter’s five stars. Until the late 1960s, though, it was known only by catalog or scientific names — mainly Gamma Cassiopeia.
The star is 550 light-years away. And it’s a stunner: 17 times the mass of the Sun, and about 35 thousand times the Sun’s brightness. It’s only about eight million years old, but it’s already nearing the end of its life — an explosion that will blast the star to bits.
Astronaut Gus Grissom noticed the star’s lack of a proper name, so he gave it one. Grissom and crewmates Ed White and Roger Chaffee were training for Apollo 1, the first flight of the new moonship. As part of the training, they were learning to navigate by the stars. As a joke, they gave new names to three stars. All three names were parts of the astronauts\' names spelled backwards. Grissom’s middle name was Ivan, so his star became Navi.
The names probably would have faded away. But the three astronauts died when a fire broke out aboard their spacecraft during a test on the launch pad. So the names stuck — names with their own stories.
Script by Damond Benningfield