ABOVE: Mars Pathfinder and microrover, named for Sojourner Truth. U.S. postage stamp was isssued in 1986.
"Name this Roving Robot!" exclaimed posters printed in early 1994 by The Planetary Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to the exploration of the Solar System. In July, NASA announced that Mars Pathfinder's microrover would be named Sojourner, after the 19th Century U.S. civil rights activist, Sojourner Truth (see article to right). The microrover is a 25 pound (11.5 kg), six-wheeled robot about the size of an office laser printer, now being assembled for its December 1996 launch with Mars Pathfinder. The dynamic duo, lander and microrover, will land in Ares Vallis, Mars, on July 4, 1997, approximately 200 years after Sojourner Truth was born.
The "Name the Rover" competition was open to anyone in the world born after January 1, 1976. The competition stipulated that the rover would be named for a heroine from mythology, fiction, or history (not living). Each entrant had to supply a fully-researched, 300-word essay explaining their choice and how naming the rover for that person was appropriate to the mission of the microrover. Entries were due in March 1995.
The Planetary Society and the Mars Exploration Office at the Jet Propulsion laboratory, both in Pasadena, California, received 3,500 entries, 1,700 of which met all of the qualifying criteria. Essays came in from around the U.S., Canada, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Poland, and Russia, from kids 5 to 18 years old. Essays were judged using the following criteria: quality and creativity of the essay (taking into consideration the contestant's age); the appropriateness of the name for a Mars rover; and the knowledge of the Mars Pathfinder microrover mission conveyed in each essay.
The winning essay, about Sojourner Truth, was written by Valerie Ambroise, a 12-year-old student in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Sojourner Truth was an African-American activist for abolition of slavery and women's rights who lived during the tumultous period surrounding the U.S. Civil War. Sojourner Truth traveled "up and down the land," advocating the rights of all people to be free and for women to participate fully in society. NASA chose the name "Sojourner" for the microrover to honor this woman, and because it means "traveler."
The second place entry was by Deepti Rohatgi, 18, of Rockville, Maryland, who proposed naming the rover for Marie Curie, a Polish-born chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1911 for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. Curie's work in radioactivity finds direct application on Mars with the Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer onboard the microrover, which will use a radioactive source to obtain information about the composition of martian rocks and soil. The third place award went to Adam Sheedy, 16, of Round Rock, Texas, who chose the late astronaut Judith Resnik for the rover. Resnik was one of seven astronauts aboard the Challenger when it exploded nearly 10 years ago, she was also a member of the first crew that flew on shuttle Discovery in 1984. Other popular names suggested for the microrover included Sacajewea, Amelia Earhart, the Greek goddesses Athena, Minerva, and Atalanta, Harriet Tubman, and Thumbelina.