MSL named by a Chinese American girl, is she just lucky?

Clara Ma

In late May, 2009, NASA selected student’s entry as new Mars rover name for Mars Science Laboratory (火星科学实验室). This time, the six grader Clara Ma (马天琪) from the Sunflower Elementary school in Lenexa, Kansas, is a Chinese American. I sincerely congratulate to her!

She is lucky because her entry was just one of 9,200 proposals. For her, this is totally a surprise as she didn’t think she could win. But is it purely a good luck? Of course not. As NASA document indicates, “The panel primarily took into account the quality of submitted essays. Name suggestions from the Mars Science Laboratory project leaders and a non-binding public poll also were considered.” Here, the poll is conducted by Disney Studios Motion Pictures. A voting of 30 semifinalists were voted on the internet. Nine finalists were submitted to NASA. Clearly, she has a merit to win the contest. Here you can listen to her essay. When she came up to the name “Curiosity”, it only took her 10 minutes to write this 250 word essay. Still, there are for sure many high quality entries out there. “Many of the nominating essays were excellent and several of the names would have fit well.” There must be something that distinguishes her entry from all others, a core entity that “recognizes something universally human and essential to science”.

NASA document says that “she heard about it at her school” and so most of news reports (such as foxnews) repeated this statement. But this is wrong. What really happened was that she read about it from the special column for kids “Times for Kids” of Time Magazine.

On June 8, her whole family members including her father Xiqing Ma, mother Cao Lisheng and younger sister Remmy arrived in Los Angeles. Clara was well treated at JPL and she signed her name (both in English and in Chinese) on MSL.

Clara is a child full of curiosity. “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,” Ma wrote in her winning essay. “Curiosity is such a powerful force. Without it, we wouldn’t be who we are today. 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.” She said that she would like to be an environmental scientist in her career.

Both her parents graduated from the Department of Automation, Qinghua University. They came to the United States in the mid-90s and are engineers at the GPS navigation device manufacturer Garmin. They have two children, Clara and Remmy, at ages 12 and 11. According to their father, Clara is relatively more mature than her age. She has already started reading journals such as “National Geography” and “Time Weekly” that her mother subscribed. In deed, she learned about the contest from “Times for Kids” of “Time Weekly”. Her sister Remmy said that they study in the same elementary school. They’ve already known that they will peruse Ph.D. degrees although they have not decided their majors yet.

At this moment, I recall a famous saying: “Opportunities are just for those Well-Prepared”. Clara is clearly prepared. Isn’t she?


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