Phenomenally nominal

Watch much NASA TV? If you’re even a little bit of a space geek, you’re probably aware that the word “nominal” is used by spaceflight teams as a way of saying “as expected.” Which is fair enough, but like a lot of geek language, it gets fetishized under the guise of somehow being “precise.” Never confirm with a mere “yes” when you can use “affirmative” or “roger that, will comply.” I like rolling around in jargon as much as the next fanboy, but it generally adds syllables and not illumination. Still, fun is fun.

The curious thing is that the word nominal is used in the space business in a way that is unlike all the standard definitions. The space-centric context of nominal is so odd that it is called out as a final special case. The Oxford online dictionary defines the fourth American form as: (chiefly in the context of space travel) functioning normally or acceptably. I’m guessing it started out long ago as a way of saying a flight parameter is following the named (declared and expected) path. Apparently this usage goes all the way back to the NACA/Langley days. And from there it grew and grew.

Spaceflight is booming these days, so we’re hearing lots of nominals. So many, in fact, that the podcasters over at made a wonderful compilation. They counted the number of times that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences use the word in recent launch coverage videos. The result? SpaceX put in a plucky performance with 31 nominals (one every 23 seconds), but Orbital Sciences trounced them with an astounding 93 nominals by the time the vehicle was in orbit. That’s one nominal every 7 seconds. Is that super-nominal? Meta-nominal? Or perhaps just phe-nominal?

You’ll want to zoom to the 4:48 mark in the program.

At some point, it became so absurd that I felt like I was listening to this instead:

Hey, wait a second! Is that Elon Musk?