Americans like gods and giants - Saturn, Ares, Atlas, Orion. Soyuz ("Union") was nothing less than shorthand for the formal name of the mighty Soviet Union. The Chinese keep trudging along their Long March. Only the French had the élan to name a rocket after a woman.
But style aside, what the French mostly had was the money. Ariane is Ariane rather than Gretchen or Eurolift because France stumped up 40% of the cash to get what has become a touchstone of European technical competence off the ground. Today, the European Space Agency is making final preparations for the maiden flight of a rocket that was named Vega by Italy, which paid 60% of the bill.
ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain does not mince words: the biggest contributor gets to choose the name of the rocket. So, one can refer to whatever is next on the drawing board as "Ariane 6", but Dordain makes very clear that, at ESA, it is called Next Generation Launcher until such time as member states put their money where their ambitions lie.
Dordain is a scientist by training who also has the political skills to run a supranational big-budget agency with big ambitions. At any time it has been a challenge to steer ESA, but with Europe facing a profound financial crisis, Dordain's job is getting really difficult.
Fortunately, as illustrated by his remarks about rocket-naming rights, he has a refreshing attitude to money. It is relatively easy to convince European nations they should have independent space capabilities and participate on an equal footing in international scientific ventures such as deep space exploration. It is quite another thing to keep them paying for it.
Dordain's great instinct is to recognise that financial limits mean trade-offs and to talk frankly about priorities. He takes pains to show that ESA wants every euro paid in by hard-pressed taxpayers to lead to a valuable result in capabilities, scientific knowledge or services.
In short, he spends ESA's money as though it were his own hard-earned cash.
If only such an attitude were the norm for all consumers of government money. When it comes to military aerospace, for instance, taxpayers have learned to expect runaway costs and waste.
Past experience warns against holding out much hope for reform, but a good start might be for defence ministers to pay a visit to ESA's modest Paris headquarters and take in the atmosphere.
(This ran as the main leader article in Flight International, 17 January)