Unless you’ve been living on Pluto for the past year, or locked in the dungeons of the ROSETTA mission’s OSIRIS camera team, you’ll have heard about “THE MARTIAN”, a blockbuster movie, made from a best-selling book which took the world by storm when it was published, after already gaining a loyal and rabid following as an ebook. After a breathless media build-up, the movie comes out next week, and all the reviews so far have been gushing in their praise for it, with one reviewer after another waxing lyrical about the trials and tribulations of future NASA astronaut Mark Watney who is marooned on Mars after a dust storm ends a crewed mission to the Red Planet rather sooner than planned.
Obviously NASA knows a good PR opportunity when it sees one, and so is supporting the film enthusiastically, and using it to promote its own Mars missions –
Well, some of them.
It’s certainly promoting Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, currently trundling forlornly around the foothills of Mt Sharp in Gale Crater on its raggedy wheels. And it’s using THE MARTIAN to highlight its future plans for crewed and uncrewed missions to Mars, too. Fair enough, of course, they’d be daft not to ride such a towering wave of free publicity. But, amazingly, and ridiculously, NASA’s most successful Mars mission to date has not been touched by the magic MARTIAN hand.
Yes, incredibly, NASA continues to ignore the continuing success of Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004, more than a decade ago.
Opportunity is now, I think it’s pretty obvious, The Rover That NASA Forgot – or is at least the rover that some in NASA want to forget. She’s not mentioned at media events anymore, isn’t acknowledged when “successful” NASA missions are listed, and as far as I can tell it is over a year – over a YEAR – since she was photographed by the HiRISE camera, which is ridiculous. ( Seriously, NASA, as beautiful as the HiRISE images are, enough pictures of dust dunes, gullies and sedimentary layers have been taken to be going on with, thanks…)
In fact, the last time NASA really acknowledged Opportunity in any meaningful way was when she crossed that imaginary but historic “First Martian Marathon Finishing Line”. At the time – along with several others – I worried that NASA would consider that as an informal end to Opportunity’s mission, and would quietly tiptoe away, leaving her to her fate afterwards. And sadly it seems this is exactly what has happened.
So, I’ll just come out and say here what I think others are thinking but don’t feel they can say: I can’t help wondering if some of the NASA high ups wish Opportunity wasn’t working any more, and actually wish she would just get it over with and die, so the media spotlight would shine on Curiosity alone.
Oppy’s extended life on Mars has taken NASA by surprise, I’m sure. She wasn’t expected to survive this long on Mars. Being honest, when she landed, in her “cosmic hole in one” all those years ago, no-one, not even the most giddily optimistic amongst us, dared to imagine she would still be roving Mars more than a decade later. But she is. Today, as you read this blog post, having explored numerous craters, discovered and studied a dozen or so meteorites, crossed a marathon’s worth of unforgiving desert, survived dust storms, computer glitches and budget threats, Opportunity is STILL driving on Mars, STILL sending back beautiful images, STILL making important scientific discoveries. She is now exploring Marathon Valley, in search of deposits clay-rich minerals spotted and mapped from orbit. This is something NASA should be celebrating, not ignoring.
NASA is enjoying great PR and levels of public interest at the moment. The world was fascinated by the first NEW HORIZONS images of Pluto, and every release since has been greeted with whooping and cheering. Likewise, the enigmatic and mysterious “White Spots” of Ceres, being photographed by the DAWN probe, are intriguing to space journalists and armchair explorers around the globe. And yet, as the world goes crazy over THE MARTIAN, and NASA shamelessly drapes itself over the film like a jazz club singer over a piano, Opportunity rolls on, ignored. Basking in the icy sunshine at the summit of Endeavour Crater’s eastern hills, high above Meridiani Planum, she is surveying Marathon Valley, and sending back views like these…
I hope that NASA starts to pay Oppy the attention she deserves soon. Her dedicated – if shrunken – science team is still in love with their rover, their mission, and with Mars too, and they deserve better than this.
So, you have to ask… who is the REAL Martian?