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For Mars Rover, Curiosity Is The Limit


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Today, we begin our summer BRIC-tion series. That's where we're going to check out literature from countries that are rising on the global stage, the so-called BRICS nations: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. We're going to start the series with Brazil, and that's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we are going to check in on the red planet, Mars. The Mars rover named Curiosity blasted off last November. Scientists are anxiously awaiting its landing. It is expected to reach Mars late Sunday evening or early Monday after traveling close to 352 million miles. Fingers are crossed for a successful landing. Some NASA scientists are calling Curiosity one of the most complex engineering projects ever.

Joining us now, though, is a young lady who has a special connection to Curiosity. Clara Ma was just 12 years old when she won the essay contest to name the rover. Today, she's 15, and she joins us from NASA's jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California. She and her family were invited to watch the rover attempt its landing.

Welcome, Clara. Thanks so much for joining us.

CLARA MA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I know you've been asked this a million times and you're probably bored with the question, but I have to ask it for people who haven't heard: How did you come up with that name, which is quite perfect?

MA: Actually, I don't even know how I came up with it. It's kind of hard to remember all the way back then to when I was in sixth grade. But I think it was the first thing that popped into my mind, and I really liked it, because I was just really curious as a child and I asked so many questions. And I thought it'd be really a really good fit for a rover that was going to Mars.

MARTIN: Were you interested in, you know, Mars, space, all that stuff?

MA: Yeah. I was really, really interested in space and planets and stars. My grandma, when she came from China to visit us in the U.S., she would just point out all of these constellations to me, you know, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper. And the stars are like the only constant things in the sky. You can - they're the same in China and in the U.S., and I just thought it was really, really cool.

MARTIN: I just want to read a little bit from your essay. It begins: 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. And do you still feel that way? It sounds like you do.

MA: Yeah. I do. I definitely do.

MARTIN: You know, you're heading into the 10th grade now. Do your friends and teachers know that you are the person who named the rover?

MA: Yeah. Pretty much all of my friends from elementary school know, because there were these scientists and engineers that came out to my school on the day that it was released that I had won the contest. So pretty much all of my elementary school friends know, but not all of my friends in high school know yet.

MARTIN: And you were able to - do I have it right that you were actually able to sign it someplace? That you're...

MA: Yeah. I...

MARTIN: There's a little bit of Clara up there on the rover, right?

MA: Yes. I actually signed my name, and I wrote Curiosity on a part of the rover a few years ago, when I first visited JPL.

MARTIN: And you got to visit NASA when Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida last November. I'm just going to play a short clip from the launch, and here it is.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, two, one, main engine start, zero, and lift off of the Atlas Five with Curiosity ,seeking clues to the planetary puzzle about life on Mars.

MARTIN: What was that like for you?

MA: It was an absolutely spectacular experience and a spectacular launch, and I remember being there. I was sitting on some stands across a lake from where they actually were going to launch it, and there was this perfect halo of clouds. There were clouds, but there was a hole right above the rocket, and it was just an amazing moment.

MARTIN: Could you tell us a little bit about Curiosity, what it looks like? I know that you're not a scientist yet, but I know you've been following this for some time. Could you just tell us what you know in your own words?

MA: OK. Curiosity is about the size of a Mini Cooper, and it's bigger and more complex than any other rover that we've sent there. And it's the first roving, analytical laboratory that NASA is going to be sending to Mars. And there are four main goals, and one is to determine whether Mars was ever capable of supporting life, or is capable. Curiosity will also study Mars' climate and geology, and maybe even plan for a possible human mission to Mars someday.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Even I can understand that, and I appreciate that. You know, Clara, I also want to ask you a tough question, and I think you can answer it. There are always people who wonder why we need to go. Why do we need to go to Mars? Why do we need to do missions like this, which seem very abstract - I mean, despite our, as you say, curiosity. So could you just tell us why you think we need to go, why you think missions like this are important?

MA: I just think it's always good to learn new things, to move forward. And Curiosity isn't just a rover that's going to be studying things up in Mars. It's not just metal and titanium and a body and wheels. It's actually people's emotions and labor and hard work and love and care, and it's all put together in that rover, and it brings people together from all across the world. There are scientists from France and Russia and Spain and Canada who have all worked on this mission.

And I think, if you can use science to bring people together to discover new things and to learn new things and to advance humanity as a whole, that's always an amazing thing to do, and I think it's totally worthwhile to be going to Mars.

MARTIN: This weekend, Clara Ma and her family will watch Curiosity attempt to land on Mars. She won the essay contest to name the Mars rover when she was just 12 years old, and she was kind enough to join us from NASA's jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Clara, thank you so much for speaking with us. Maybe we'll see you on one of those human missions to Mars one day.

MA: Hopefully. I'd love for that to happen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.