NORMAN — Anthony Yoon didn't have high expectations when he submitted his essay.
Last fall, the Norman High sophomore responded to a call from NASA for students' name suggestions for the next Mars rover. The "Name the Rover" contest gave K-12 students a chance to become a part of space history by submitting a name and an essay on their choice.
Yoon, who already had a slight interest in space-related subjects, wrote a short essay days before deadline, focusing on one name that came to him: "Fortitude."
"I entered it because I thought it was going to be fun, a good experience. It was just an idea I had because I like space and stuff, and having the chance to do that was rare," Yoon said. "I kind of did it just to do it. I didn't think I'd even make it to the semi-finalist round."
Now, NASA is considering "Fortitude," along with eight other submissions as finalists for its rover name. Out of the 28,000 students who submitted essays and suggestions, Fortitude is a finalist alongside Endurance, Tenacity, Promise, Perseverance, Vision, Clarity, Ingenuity and Courage.
"It's really surreal. I didn't think I would make it this far," Yoon said. "I'm just really happy I did, though."
Judges looked at students' originality and essay quality to select semifinalists and finalists, Yoon said. After seeing the other finalists' names when they were released last week, Yoon said he is still confident in his name choice and essay.
"The definition [of fortitude] is when you have courage in the face of challenges, and space travel is pretty hard because of that, so I decided that name was pretty good," Yoon said. "Getting a rover to Mars is pretty hard, and building a rover to last 15-plus years [is] also pretty hard. I just thought that was a good name for a situation like that."
The Mars rover will leave in July or August 2020, and is set to land in Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The 2,300-pound "robotic scientist" will study Mars' surface and climate, collect samples to bring back to earth and search for signs of past life on the planet. The winning student will be invited to NASA's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to see the rover launch.
While a public poll to pick the most popular name closed Monday, the Mars rover naming contest is far from over. This Friday, Yoon will video call four judges to further explain his choice, making the case for "Fortitude" for the last time. Judges won't announce their final pick -- which will consider the results of the online poll -- until early March.
David Jackson, Norman High's principal, said in a statement that the school is cheering on Yoon's submission.
"Anthony's choice for the Mars 2020 Rover name captures all that encompasses a Mars mission," Jackson wrote. "The scientists have a difficult task in exploring Mars. They need mental and emotional strength to overcome the challenges of the mission. Norman High is proud of Anthony and hope that his well chosen name, Fortitude, is the favorite of those who vote."
Yoon said he's not sure what he wants to do after high school -- he's just 15 right now -- but his participation in the contest has opened him up to considering space-related work in the future. And if the 2020 Mars rover were to be named after his suggestion?
"I'd be really happy. I wouldn't know what to do, I'd just be happy," Yoon said.
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