“On Aug. 5 at 10:31 p.m. PST, a rover named Curiosity touched down safely on the surface of Mars, and I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat.
My name is Clara, and when I was in 6th grade, I won the essay contest NASA held to name its next Mars rover. The essay I wrote was not even 250 words long, but somehow it was enough to change my life.
I still remember that chilly December day, sitting in science class. I’d finished a worksheet early and decided to get a TIME for Kids magazine off of Mrs. Estevez’s bookshelf. It was the 2008 Invention Issue, but that wasn’t the only thing that caught my eye. In the magazine, there was an article about a girl who named the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.
The article also talked about the essay contest NASA was holding to name its next Mars rover. Before I even knew anything else about it, a single word flooded my 11-year-old mind: Curiosity.
I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so I could get started on my essay. That afternoon, I raced home from the bus stop, sat down at the computer, and typed until my fingers ached. It turns out I was just in time. A few days later, and the contest would have closed.
Five months later, shortly after I had turned 12, I was watching a National Geographic special on mammoths when the phone rang. My mom answered, and immediately, a wide smile spread across her face.
When she told me that I had won, I was happier than I could ever remember being. I screamed and ran up and down the stairs and all around the house. I completely forgot about the mammoths and did not even remember to turn off the TV until it was really late.
Curiosity is such an important part of who I am.
I have always been fascinated by the stars, the planets, the sky and the universe. I remember as a little girl, my grandmother and I would sit together in the backyard for hours. She’d tell me stories and point out constellations.
Here in the heart of the country, my grandmother would say, there were no bright city lights to compete with the brilliance of the stars. There was just the chirping of the cicadas and the soft summer breeze.
My grandmother lived in China, thousands of miles away from my home in Kansas. I loved the stars because they kept us together even when we were apart. They were always there, yet there was so much I didn’t know about them. That’s what I love so much about space. No matter how much we learn, it will always possess a certain degree of mystery.
In the past, space exploration may have been a competition to see who got somewhere first or the fastest. But now, it is one of the few things that bring people together. Science is a language that needs no translation. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you look like — you just have to have a thirst for knowledge and a passion for learning in order to succeed.
People often ask me why we go to faraway places like Mars. Why do we explore? My answer to that is simple: because we can. Because we’re curious. Because we as human beings do not just stay holed up in one place. We are constantly wondering and trying to find out what’s over the hill and beyond the horizon.
The Curiosity rover is more than just a robot. It is more than just a titanium body and aluminum wheels. Curiosity represents the hard work, passion, love and commitment of thousands of people from all over the world who were brought together by science.
Science is so awesome. It is breathtaking and mind-blowing, intertwining and unifying; and sometimes, it’s just a little bit crazy. The discoveries we make about our world are incredibly humbling. They move us forward and have the potential to benefit all of mankind.
This December it will be four years of my life that have been tied to Curiosity in some way. I’ve met so many amazing people through this experience, from scientists to engineers to administrators to volunteers. Their dedication and fervor inspire me immensely. My journey with Curiosity and the MSL mission team has shaped the person that I am today, as well as the person I would one day like to become.
I am deeply grateful to everyone who made it possible for me to have this amazing adventure.
And to you, I hope your curiosity takes you far.”