What does “Atlantis” mean? And why is the Space Shuttle Atlantis named after something underwater?

The final space shuttle mission has blasted off, launching the fascinating word mystery of “Atlantis” into our consciousness: How did the name of a mythical kingdom thousands of leagues under the sea become the moniker for a vehicle soaring  thousands of miles into space?

In two of Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus and Critias – both penned around 360 B.C., the Greek philosopher recites the tale of a lost civilization located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean named Atlantis. Derived from the Greek Ἀτλαντὶς νῆσος meaning “island of Atlas,” and regarded as the domain of Poseidon, the god of sea, Atlantis was supposedly a mighty maritime force that lay “in front of the Pillars of Hercules” and vanquished parts of Western Europe and Africa. According to Plato’s account, Atlantis eventually  sank to the bottom of the sea “in a single day and night of misfortune.”

Possibly drawing upon Plato’s dialogues, in 1941 DC Comics debuted Aquaman – a superhero hailing from the lost city of Atlantis, possessing superhuman abilities to breathe underwater, communicate with sea life, and swim with great vigor. Perhaps tired from overseeing seventy percent of the earth’s surface, the original Aquaman retired from superherodom in 1985. Coincidentally the space shuttle Atlantis made its maiden voyage that same year.

Superheroes and lost cities aside, the space shuttle Atlantis was actually named after the RV Atlantis – a research vessel used from 1930 to 1966 by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to study marine life and the ocean floor. All of the shuttles have been named after historically important maritime research vessels. The two-masted sailing ship was named in honor of – you guessed it, the” lost city” of Atlantis.

Conspiracy theorists with a penchant for all things aquatic and mythical continue to search for the actual location of Atlantis. In fact, a British aeronautical engineer fiddling with Google Earth claims to have discovered the exact location some 600 miles west of the Canary Islands.

(Speaking of  watery myths, what are the three points that define the Bermuda Triangle? Find out, here.)

The meaning and origin of names is often lost with time. Are there any names of things or persons that you would like us to explore? Let us know.