Why I Mourned the Opportunity Rover

Why I Mourned the Opportunity Rover

When I was a kid, my greatest wish was to go to Mars.

Astronomy was my first love, you see. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with everything that lay beyond the sky. I spent hours studying constellations. What they look like. How to find them. Where their names come from.

In elementary school, my parents bought me a home planetarium. It projected various star charts onto the ceiling of a dark room. It also came with a handy guide and a fakey laser pointer (a red colored flashlight with a cover and a tiny hole cut in it). I played with that thing until the star projections cracked. Then I moved on to memorizing all the facts in my The Magic School Bus Visits the Solar System book.

In middle school, I did a massive report on the Apollo 13 mission, which included printing several transcripts between mission control and the astronauts.

There was simply no question in my mind that, by the time I reached adulthood, humanity would be ready to take the first steps on another planet. And I would be the one who did it.

Sometimes, Dreams Transform

I still remember the day I learned that humans only inhabit a single planet. I must have been five or six. Growing up on cartoons like The Jetsons and Lost In Space, I assumed that we could do all the things I saw on TV. I remember gazing forlornly at the stars after my mother told me Earth was all we had. The universe has never felt so lonely.

It wasn’t until high school and dreaded algebra class that I realized how little math and I get along. Like it or not, science involves a lot of math. There’s also the fact that I hate flying. And after watching several realistic sci-fi shows in recent years, I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m just not cut out for space.

But you never forget your first love. And I never lost my passion for the stars. I couldn’t go there myself, so I started writing about people who do. When you combine a passion for astronomy with a love of Star Trek and Star Wars, the inevitable conclusion is a slew of space operas. I love to write about people living among the stars, discovering the wonders of the universe for the first time and taming them.

I think that’s one of the reasons the Opportunity Rover was so important to me.

What was the Opportunity Rover?

Opportunity launched on July 7th of 2003. One month after its sister, Spirit, and less than a month after I married the love of my life. Opportunity arrived on Mars on January 25th of 2004. Two weeks after Spirit landed on the other side of the planet.

To say I was excited about this news would be an understatement. I followed the first few years of Opportunity’s mission closely, marveling at how these two little machines kept going well beyond their 90 day mission objective.

For the longest time, I remember speculation about how long the rovers could possibly last. Each year, each month, seemed like it might well be their last. But I remember commenting to my husband that I bet they’d last a long time. I may have said forever because, in my heart, that’s what I hoped.

When spirit got stuck in soft soil in 2009 and ultimately had to shut down, I wasn’t sad. Because the Opportunity Rover was still up there, still trucking along, sending science and images back to Earth. It was both comforting and exciting to think of that little robot up there, mapping the surface of an alien planet, preparing us to make the journey ourselves.

But when Nasa announced on February 13th that Opportunity had been lost to us, I sobbed like a broken child. And that’s not an exaggeration.

There are people alive right now who, for their entire lives, robots have been studying Mars. Opportunity’s mission lasted almost as long as my marriage, pretty much my entire adult life. As someone who grew up mourning the fact that we had yet to escape our singular rock, that blows my mind.

The Mission to Explore Mars hasn’t Ended

I know that Opportunity’s cousin, Curiosity, is still out there, still gathering similar information and sending it back to Earth. Curiosity is bigger and hardier than either Opportunity or Spirit, no doubt built with information gathered by its younger cousins. Curiosity launched on November 26th of 2011, and arrived on Mars on August 6th of 2012. Like its predecessors, Curiosity has outlived its original mission objective of 2 years. It has functioned for more than 2,300 days.

But the Opportunity rover explored Mars for more than 5,000 days before a dust storm doomed it to a long rest. That’s 55 times the lifespan it was designed for. I know that little robot had no emotions we didn’t assign to it. But we humans are sentimental creatures. We anthropomorphize everything. Let’s not forget that one of the first things we taught the Mars rovers to do was sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to themselves.

When Opportunity stopped answering communications, Nasa tried more than 1,000 times to re-establish communications. They even built Opportunity a Spotify playlist called Wake Up Curiosity! And transmitted the songs to the rover in hopes that it would respond. When Opportunity remained silent, Nasa’s last transmission was Billie Holiday’s I’ll Be Seeing You.

The Opportunity Rover might not have been able to feel anything for us. But we humans certainly cared about her. We gave her a name, after all, and a gender, even a Twitter account. When we thought she was in trouble, we played her music to get her through. Our last words to her were words of love and care. And when we ultimately deemed her beyond our reach, we came together to mourn her passing.

The Opportunity Rover Inspired Me

The more I think about the Opportunity Rover and its steadfast presence in the background of my life, the more I realize how much it has inspired my work. I certainly see shades of Opportunity in Dragon, the artificial intelligence that serves as a central character in my Celestial Serenade space opera. Dragon was originally designed as a weapon with great destructive force. But he was abandoned by his creators, left with a single directive: explore, discover, document.

So Dragon wandered the dark void of the galaxy, like so many other machines humanity has built. Voyager comes to mind. Another great explorer we sent to the stars, knowing it would never come home. And though Dragon’s mechanics slowly degraded over the course of thousands of years, he never gave up. He kept on going, finding new ways to survive, far outliving anyone’s expectations. Just like the Opportunity rover.

So I cried when I heard Opportunity was lost to us. There are so many bad things in the world today, so many stories about humans doing bad things to other humans. So much hatred and bigotry and greed. In rough times like these, we need inspirational stories more than ever. Stories about little robots that were built for a few months of exploration and ended up granting us heaps of understanding about the surface of an alien planet.

Today, some youngster is reading comments like we’ll dust you off when we get there and making a conscious decision to do just that. The drive to create and discover, the drive to accomplish great feats like setting foot on another planet, is what ultimately brings us together. Even in death, the Opportunity Rover is rekindling an entire generation’s love for science and discovery. And we need that right now.

#ThanksOppy

So I encourage you to spend just a few minutes on Wikipedia or Google, browsing the images the Opportunity Rover sent back during it’s nearly 15 year journey across the surface of Mars. Let it astound you, let it inspire you, and let it remind you what great things humanity can accomplish when we work together.

So long Opportunity, and thanks for all the science. Rest well, little robot. You done good. Real good.

2 Replies to “Why I Mourned the Opportunity Rover”

    1. Thank you :) It’s been comforting to see how many people share my sentiment. That’s what I hope too, even though I know it won’t be me ^^;;

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