When the last chapter of a saga comes to an end, that is often the time that we talk about the whole story with the greatest passion. We celebrate an era in much the same way that we break out the albums and singles of great musicians when they die.
Today we lost another great rock star. Opportunity, the Mars rover. This morning, NASA declared Opportunity’s signal from the red planet was lost for good. Yes, it was just a robot, but that little robot (that most people don’t realize is actually the size of a golf cart) did more for space exploration than most astronauts. It, as well as its twin rover Spirit, showed us that water once existed on the now barren planet and provided us with views of Mars that fascinated a new generation of science lovers with the same level of joy as those who watched the first moon landing. While its mission taught us much, its journey has something to teach us that is just as valuable.
I’m not talking about the fact that Spirit and Opportunity made it to Mars in one piece, although it is absolutely amazing. Even with the help of some parachutes and reverse thruster rockets, the rover essentially hurtled toward the surface of the planet at unimaginable speeds, inflated a giant buckyball shaped balloon around itself and bounced and rolled itself to a stop. (If you haven’t seen the simulated animation, you should check it out.) It’s successor, Curiosity, was afforded a much less violent style of landing 8 years later.
What I am referring to is the length of Opportunity’s life. Much like Opportunity’s predecessors, Pathfinder and Sojourner, the little rover that could was expected to last only up to 90 days. As it turns out, expectations can be a funny thing. Opportunity decided instead to roam the Martian countryside for 15 years. Think of how much was learned or discovered in those extra 14 years and 9 months that scientists, the rover’s designers, never expected to happen. These are the people who knew Opportunity better than anyone and they severely underestimated it.
That’s what makes today so incredible. Today was not the day that scientists lost Opportunity’s signal. In fact, NASA had not heard from Opportunity in eight months. Let that sink in. Fifteen years ago, scientists expected Opportunity to fade away after 90 days. But when they lost Opportunity’s signal eight months ago, they didn’t close the book and say “that’s a wrap” or “bound to happen eventually.” No, no, no. They came to a collective decision that it could be a hiccup, a glitch, a brief moment of interruption in Opportunity’s communication. And they held on to that possibility for over 240 days sending roughly 1000 signals including one just yesterday with the hope that Opportunity would respond back. Two hundred and forty days is almost three times the rover’s original life expectancy. And that is the amazing part. In those 15 years of exploration, Opportunity changed the way it was viewed. It changed everyone’s expectations. In 2004, Opportunity was expected to last 90 days. In 2019, it was expected to defy expectations.
When NASA scientists decided today to accept Opportunity’s fate, it was not an easy announcement. It was emotional. The rover that drove a marathon distance and once even took a selfie of itself on Mars was more than just a machine. This was a loss and was treated as such. NASA even has a site for fans to post virtual postcards to Mars, many now saying goodbye to “Oppy.”
But the mourning is already transitioning into celebration. In remembering Opportunity’s unexpected journey, Mars exploration has been given another jolt of energy. And let’s not forget that Curiosity is still driving the red landscape carrying the rover torch. It may not last as long as Opportunity. After all, we can’t hold Curiosity to the same superstar expectations. But perhaps Curiosity will also refuse to limit itself to the low expectations of others. And perhaps the rest of us Earth rovers could gain a thing or two from that way of thinking, too.
Opportunity MER 2004-2019