Why I cried about a robot and other weird human quirks

If you haven’t heard the tragic news, NASA declared Opportunity Rover’s mission “complete” which is a very kind way of phrasing the fact that it is no longer responding to commands or communicating back to Earth. It went incommunicado following a storm on the Mars surface back in June 2018. Given that, it’s likely that the little rover that could is quite dead.

Opportunity is a remarkable little robot. It was designed to withstand just three months and 1000 meters of travel. Instead? It functioned for nearly fourteen years and logged 28 miles of travel across the unforgiving Mars terrain. Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, discovered that Mars was once wet. They sent us incredible images of another planet. (Spirit lasted six years and traveled 4.8 miles in its lifetime. Spirit was immortalized in an XKCD comic that made me cry for the twins back in 2010. He added a new one for Opportunity that is more optimistic and heartwarming.)

I’m not a space nerd. I’ve always been curious about the universe and I think it’s mind-blowingly amazing out there, but I was never one of those kids who dreamed of becoming an astronaut. I do think it’s messed up what they did to Pluto, but beyond that, I wouldn’t say I actively kept up with space missions more than the next guy.

That includes Spirit and Opportunity. For long swaths of time, I’d forget about them. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a lot happening on this other planet, called Earth? It’s easy to forget about two robots, 54.6 million kilometers away.

But whenever there was news about either of these little rovers, I was always curious. It’s a strange concept, to think of two little robots crawling the face of our neighboring planet, beaming back news of their very busy days. To think of a roomful of people smiling at a console with every update, wracking their minds to come up with some way to send a snippet of code that would fix a wheel stuck in a Martian sand dune.

Opportunity and Spirit weren’t performing miracles or anything. If Marvin the Paranoid Android heard about their work, I’m sure he’d find it mind-achingly dull. They were just driving around, dusting off rocks, shooting pictures of pretty much everything. (I mean, they can’t all be winners.)

But some of the images? Some truly were incredible. Reminders of humankind’s achievements and glimpses of what we could learn from traveling so very far from home.

Whenever the rovers would come back into my consciousness, I’d spare a moment to think of those NASA scientists. I wondered how much they dreaded the day when the line inevitably went dead. How do you brace yourself for something that should’ve happened a decade ago? What were their careers like? They signed on for this project will full knowledge that the project could’ve been DOA, that the project could’ve ended in three months. They’d process the information and attempt to communicate, but then it would be over.

Instead, the little robots persisted. Did you know that Opportunity’s final resting place is a spot called Perseverance Valley? How lovely is that?)

I’m crying again. When I could be crying for the 821 million people who are chronically malnourished here on Earth. I know that the mission cost could’ve changed those lives. Yet it’s something that I know is beyond reason or logic. I can care about a robot alongside wishing we could better allocate our resources at home, hoping that the brighter future our scientists imagined doesn’t have to happen on the surface of an inhospitable planet. I don’t think we should be launching cars at the sky until we can hand cars to people who need jobs. I can also be inspired by the space program while hoping we can find a way to fund both human dignity and our research beyond our atmosphere.

I can believe all of these things and still wonder if Oppy (they affectionately call her Oppy. And Opportunity is a “her”, because they use the nautical phrasing) is out there, dreaming of electric sheep.

Her last words back to Earth were the sentence she was designed to beam back in just these circumstances: “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”

While there are lots of people I wish would speak again, I can simultaneously wish that the Martian wind would blow her back on her feet, dust off her solar panels and that she could catch a ray of sun to tell the humans who love her hello, that she was just taking a nap.

Opportunity: Panoramic Camera: Sol 5102 (credit: NASA, Oppy)