June 13, 2009 — I’m standing in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. There are a dozen or so eager reporters holding microphones to my mouth, but all I want to do is run and hide.
That was four years ago, when I won the essay contest to name NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, Curiosity.
As a 12-year-old, I was incredibly shy. I couldn’t look people in the eye when I talked to them. My voice was shaky when I spoke. On the playground at recess, I would have much rather read a book than play kickball with my friends. But that day at JPL, I confronted my fears. I made myself look into the daunting cameras, speak loudly and carry myself with confidence.
I fell in love with the JPL the moment I stepped through its iron gates. I fell in love with the mountains and hills that roll through its California campus; with the deer and mountain lions that roam its grounds. Most of all, though, I fell in love with the thousands of scientists and engineers that are the heart and soul of JPL. And even though I was 1,537 miles away from the only home I’ve ever known, I felt like I belonged.
I knew as a little girl that I desperately wanted to work at JPL. That I wanted to be surrounded and buoyed by the infectious passion of the men and women who worked at the lab. I had no idea that the summer after my sophomore year in high school, I’d have the opportunity to do just that.
June 10, 2013 — almost exactly four years to the day of my first visit to JPL, I started my internship in Building 321 with the Mars Public Engagement team. I was no longer that little girl with braces in the pink blouse and corduroy plants. I didn’t have my parents or my sister by my side. I didn’t need an escort, or a visitor’s badge, or any special clearance. I was independent, I had bigger responsibilities, and I was finally, finally able to start making a small contribution to the people that have already given me so much.
But I didn’t do it alone. I had help from my mentors, support from the scientists and engineers that I had met and connected with during my previous visits.
There was Peter Theisinger, project manager of the Mars Science Laboratory mission. One of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2012. CalTech graduate, majored in physics, has worked at JPL for over 50 years. But bring up any of that and he’ll tell you firmly he is nobody special. That by himself he would have never been able to land a 1-ton rover on Mars. That’s just Pete.
I’ve known Pete for four years now, but it feels like I’ve known him my entire life. I treasure the time that I spend with him, the stories he tells and the advice that he gives. Do what you love, Clara, that’s how you’ll really succeed. Over lunch one day in JPL’s main cafeteria, in the middle of a conversation about physics that I only half understood, he said something that almost made me cry. It’s the little decisions that make us who we are, that have the power to change our lives in the biggest ways. He asked me, what if I hadn’t finished that worksheet early in science class that day? What if I had never decided to submit an essay to name the rover? Then we would have never met. He was quiet for awhile after that. In his eyes I could see so much depth, time and wisdom, and a glimmer of the gritty determination that got him where he is today. Pete is so many things to me — a grandfather, a good friend, a mentor, a role model. I am different because of him. I am who I am because of him.
Pete is one person at JPL who has changed my life, but there are so many more who have made an impact on me, my goals and dreams.
This summer, I couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky I have been. I am not special because I wrote a 250-word essay in sixth grade. I have nothing to be proud of. Instead, I have everything to be grateful for. I’ve had the privilege of naming the Mars rover, an experience that has changed my life in ways I could have never imagined. But my role in the Mars Science Laboratory mission is miniscule compared with the years of hard work, passion and dedication that the scientists at JPL and around the world have contributed to its completion.
In August, I had to say goodbye to my mentors, friends and fellow interns. Another chapter in my journey with JPL has come to a close. But I’m not sad. I’m just excited for the next one to start.