As the launch time for NASA’s first Mars Exploration Rover ticked closer on Sunday morning, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe introduced a nine-year-old girl to journalists seated 11 miles from the launch pad. The Arizona third-grader, named Sofi Collis, had written to the space agency to suggest it name the twin Mars rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity.” NASA thought it was a great idea.
The names were chosen from about 10,000 suggestions made by students across the United States. Last fall, NASA asked schoolchildren to propose pairs of names for the two rovers, which until Sunday morning were called simply MER-A and MER-B.
Collis, who was born in Siberia and adopted by a U.S. woman, described her choice of names in a short essay. “I used to live in an orphanage,” she wrote. “It was dark and cold and lonely. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Opportunity.'”
As a reward for submitting the winning names, Collis received a trip to Florida to watch the first rover lift off toward Mars.
Now called Spirit, MER-A was slated to launch at 2:06 p.m. EDT on June 8. However, less than two hours before that time, mission controllers called off the launch due to the increasing threat of thunderstorms at Cape Canaveral. NASA will try again at 2:02 p.m. EDT on June 9.
The second rover, Opportunity, is on schedule for its liftoff on June 25.
Both rovers will arrive at Mars in January and land in different places along the martian equator that are about half a world away from one another. Each rover is designed to explore its landing area for three months, using several instruments to image, dig into, travel over, and otherwise investigate the climate, geology, and history of its surroundings.
Update: After two delays, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” launched successfully at 1:58 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, June 10.