How Curiosity Got A Name…

Today on the blog you (and I) are going to meet an amazing and inspirational young lady named Clara – a 15 year old student from Lenexa, Kansas who wrote an essay that won her a contest – and in doing so, she helped put a brick in the wall of history.

Clara is the person who gave the Curiosity Rover its name. She named the rover that I tell stupid jokes about – and I got to talk to her.

This is Clara Ma:

Let me just say first off – that this girl is smart and clever and endearingly charming. She is an inspiration for young girls who want to do great things, and for us older people who worry about what the hell young people are doing with their lives. I’m not even joking here – read this, and you will have a better day. Promise.

So, enjoy this interview – and I hope you find Clara as awesome as I did.

Read more to read more…

Clara and I conducted a brief interview over the email machine last week, and it went a little something like this:



SR:  Clara! Thanks you so so so much for doing this and answering all my dumb questions. So here we go… Details first I suppose. Can you tell us your name, age, and where you’re from?

CLARA: My name is Clara, I am 15 years old, and I am from Kansas. Our state motto is “ad astra per aspera”, which means “to the stars through difficulties.” I absolutely love that and find it very apposite.

SR: And what is your relationship to the Curiosity Mars Rover? 

CLARA: In 6th grade I entered an essay contest to name NASA’s next Mars rover and won. The name I came up with was Curiosity.

SRHow hard was it to write that winning essay? Did you throw out drafts, and start over and over? How long did it take you?

CLARA: One day when I was in 6th grade, I finished a worksheet early and decided to get a Time For Kids magazine off the shelf– I had no idea that it would end up changing my life. In the magazine there was an article about a little girl named Sofi Collis who got to name the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. It also went on to detail another contest to name NASA’s newest Mars rover. I remember reading and thinking, “how cool would it be if I could name something going to Mars Curiosity?” I couldn’t concentrate on anything for the rest of the day because I was thinking about what I’d write in the essay.

When I got home, the words came relatively easy to me. I got off the bus and ran home to the computer as fast as my 11-year-old legs would carry me. I was that excited! The whole essay took me about ten minutes to write. Of course it was only allowed to be 250 words long, although I could have written pages more. I had my sister read it and sent it in that same night.

SRWhat other names did you think of besides “Curiosity”? 

CLARA: Curiosity was the first and last name that I thought of. In my mind, curiosity was the reason that we were going to Mars in the first place. Because human beings don’t just stay in one place. We always wonder what’s over the hill, what’s beyond the horizon… you know? And I thought that if something going to Mars could have a name that embodied such an important part of who we are, then that’d be amazing.

SR: And what was your reaction when you found out that your essay had been chosen? How much freaking out happened?

CLARA: I was ecstatic. The happiest I could ever remember being. I ran up and down the stairs and all around the house and I could not stop screaming. I think I was watching a National Geographic special on mammoths and I didn’t even remember to turn off the TV until it was really late! Here’s an actual entry in my diary (haha I know, I’m such a nerd..don’t laugh):

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Well, I think I would name the new Mars rover “Curiosity”. I wrote an essay in December and sent it to NASA and in April they are going to announce the winner! I hope I win, but I know I probably won’t because there will be a lot of good essays… But still, one can always hope!! I think in March there will be this voting thing on their website, so I’m counting down the days until then. I don’t care if I win, actually, although that would be awesome. I just want the rover to do lots of cool stuff on Mars and have a really really good name. I also didn’t exactly tell Mommy and Daddy that I entered the contest, so if anything happens it will be a surprise! I hope it’s worth having Mommy get mad at me for making her run out to the mailbox to mail a mysterious envelope that I would tell her nothing about because I was too scared to go out to the mailbox at night to mail my own thing because I am scared of the dark. Wow, sorry. That was a long sentence and Ms. Russell would probably kill me for that horrible usage of grammar.  But Renny knows, because I made her proofread my essay. By the way, BARACK OBAMA HAS BECOME THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN PRESIDENT! He was just recently inaugurated in January, and we watched it in class and Mr. Morris put it on the projector. I even cried! But I cry at everything. I also cried when Nainai left. I miss her so much.

SR: You went to the launch, in November 2011 with some very famous people like Morgan Freeman and the landing on Mars this August – but what’s been, for you, the most impressive thing to come out of this? What blows your mind?

CLARA:  The best part of this entire trip has been getting to meet the amazing people I’ve met. All the scientists and engineers and journalists and Mars outreach staff and interns and administrators. They are incredibly dedicated, intelligent, kind, and humble all at the same time, and they inspire me immensely. There’s a really short thank-you video that I made for all of them… I spent a long time on it and I meant every single word.

I also remember meeting a lovely retiree named Betty. At the launch, she drove us everywhere. Even though she had retired, she came back to volunteer the weekend of the launch. She was so, so, so sweet and thoughtful and she told lots of stories. She reminded me of my own grandmother, whom I only get to see once every few years because she lives half a world away in Beijing, China. I would visit her every weekend if I could afford it!

SR: I gather you’re a big fan of science and space, and I think I read that you’ve got an internship at JPL… so I would have to ask, is this it for you? Is space where you see yourself working?

CLARA: I don’t have an internship yet, but I am planning on applying for one in a few months. I would love to work at JPL. I think it quite possibly might be one of my favorite places in the entire world. I love the mountains and the weather and the atmosphere and the people.

I am certainly a big fan of science and space, but that’s not all that I’m interested in. I also like journalism and foreign languages and politics and international relations. If what I do in the future could somehow involve all of these things, I’d be very content!

SR: One of the cooler things, I would think, is that you got to sign a plate that is on Curiosity right now. What do you think about having your name rolling about on the surface of Mars?

CLARA: I still can’t believe it. Something that I touched is on Mars, tens of millions (when it’s close) up to hundreds of millions of miles away! My name is on Mars. Oh my gosh, it’s on MARS. I cannot even begin to put into words how special that is to me and how happy that makes me feel.

SR: As a future amazing scientist, what questions do you want to know the answer to? What still captures your imagination?

CLARA: I really don’t think I’ll be that amazing. I’m no genius or prodigy or anything of the sort, I’m just extremely curious and passionate about the things I care about. But thank you, I am very flattered that you’d say that. I have so many questions and wonder about so many things, but since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to know what’s out there in the universe. Are we alone or are there millions of others like us? It’s a question that we might never know the answer to. But no one ever knows unless they try.

SR: And lastly, Clara, If you could tell Curiosity something and know that she’d understand you – what would you say to her? 

CLARA:  I think… i would just say thank you.  For changing my life. For making me a better person. For opening my eyes to new things and people and ideas. For giving me confidence. For always being there- on Mars and in my heart.

I am so fortunate to have seen the things I’ve seen and done the things I’ve done. This has been one of the best experiences of my entire life, and I will never, ever forget it.

Lastly, I just wanted to say that I wish everyone could be able to experience the things that I have. Then there’d be no question about why we do it, why we explore. Because then everyone would just know.


That was Clara – and I think she’s remarkable. I’m sure that by now, you do as well.

Just because she’s so great, I’m going to put Clara’s essay – the one that named the rover – here as well. You should read it. It’s fantastic.

“Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone’s mind. It makes me get out of bed in the morning and wonder what surprises life will throw at me that day. Curiosity is such a powerful force. Without it, we wouldn’t be who we are today.

When I was younger, I wondered, ‘Why is the sky blue?’, ‘Why do the stars twinkle?’, ‘Why am I me?’, and I still do. I had so many questions, and America is the place where I want to find my answers. Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder. Sure, there are many risks and dangers, but despite that, we still continue to wonder and dream and create and hope.

We have discovered so much about the world, but still so little. We will never know everything there is to know, but with our burning curiosity, we have learned so much.”

Until next time – Do your science.


18 thoughts on “How Curiosity Got A Name…

  1. Auroness says:

    When I was 11, I would run home to watch the latest Star Trek episode. She runs home to write an essay that starts her on a journey that puts her name on Mars. (and naming one of my favorite twitter accounts)

  2. Angela says:

    Just beautiful. What an extraordinary young woman.

  3. Keith L. says:

    What a wonderful and inspiring young woman! Our future is in good hands.

  4. starbuck5250 says:

    I was going to write that we need more women in the sciences (which we do) but upon reflection, we need more enthusiastic people in the sciences. People like Clara. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. Nice interview. I was just thinking, what if NASA chose the name Sarcasm to its Rover. Would your twitter name be CuriousRover?

  6. cirquelar says:

    That was great! There certainly was a good reason that her name suggestion was picked: awesome essay and downright embodiment of curiosity.

  7. William M Woodard says:

    Great video Clara! That alone is a tear jerker.
    I sat up until 3am to watch the landing….Outstanding.
    I became interested though NASA,s Asst Chief Tech. Joe Parrish. I had the fortune to have him as an instructor teaching me how to fly Gliders here in VA.
    Last week at FFR (Front Royal VA) I met a young lady somewhat like yourself. She is 13 years old and already a way better glider pilot than I. I mention this only to plant the seed. Did you know that you can fly gliders well before you can drive? Take a look at what a ‘Fast Ride’ is. You will find the info at the name that you came up with is Perfect.

    Thank you, A Curiosity follower.

  8. PrincessThumb22 says:

    A very thoughtful and entertaining interview. You were right. After reading this, I have hope that not all teenagers are stoned on iPhones. What a remarkable young lady.

    P.S. Loved the part about her being so excited that she forgot to turn off the Nat Geo show about Mammoths. Could she be any sweeter?!

  9. PogieJoe says:

    Amazing. What a great story!

  10. cdsmitty says:

    Wow!! I’m speechless…wait I meant I have writers block now!! 🙂 I really and truly hope she goes very far in her life!!

  11. Sarah says:

    Extraordinary young girl. Thanks for telling us about her.

  12. Tibs says:

    Can you imagine what her parents’ reaction was when they found out what was behind that mystery envelope, they must have freaked out with joy!

  13. Amazing story!
    Her story is an inspiration to so many kids.

    @sarcasticrover, thanks for sharing.


  14. […] MSL-Frage ist beantwortet: Wer ist der “Sarcastic Rover”, der auch gerade die Erfinderin von ‘Curiosity’ […]

  15. Loved the interview and your introduction to Clara.

  16. Wow, a very inspiring young lady there! Wish her well in what could be a very bright future!

  17. Angelmice says:

    Wonderful story! What an amazing young lady!
    ~angelmice @

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