On September 11th 2001 I was up a mountain in Scotland, just outside Fort William, holidaying in the Highlands. I’d taken a cable car to the top, on a misty, rather damp day, but that didn’t matter; despite the less-than-perfect weather I could still see a stunning panorama – more mountains, lochs and beautiful Scottish scenery all around me. Up there it was quite martian – lots of rocks all around, large and small, and I had a great time just wandering around. As I sat in the coffee shop at the top, waiting for the cable car back down to the ground to arrive, I had no idea what was happening beneath the mist, in the real world. On the bus back to Fort William I got a text message from my mum, asking if I’d heard about “the bomb in new York”. At that time there was a lot of confusion about what had actually happened, I guess. I tried to text back that no, I hadn’t, but mobile phone coverage up there was so poor I couldn’t, so I arrived back at Fort William still blissfully unaware of what had happened. And I had no idea what was unfolding in New York until I approached a shop that sold electrical goods. A large crowd was gathered in front of the shop, gazing into the window in silence. As I walked towards them I could see some were holding their hands to their faces, others were hugging their partners, others sobbing. I heard American voices breaking with emotion, and then, looking over shoulders, I saw what was happening on the TV screens in the window. But with no sound I wasn’t sure what was going on, though it was obvious something terrible had happened. That must, I thought, have been the bomb my mother had mentioned. I remained unaware of the truth of the situation until I got back to my bed and breakfast, walked into the sitting room, and found my fellow guests and the B&B owners sitting in front of the TV, pale with shock…
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in America. There will be ceremonies all across the US and across the world, and tributes laid at memorials and in churches and cemeteries.
And many millions of miles away from us, with just the sentinel-still rocks and the softly whispering winds of Mars to witness it, another tribute will be paid to the dead of 9-11.
As they were being built, both Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were fitted with small pieces of metal from the wreckage of the Twin Towers, shaped into rectangular plate covers for cabling. Marked with small “Stars and Stripes” decals, they were then placed on the instrument packages of the robot arms, and sent to Mars on the rovers as tributes to the people who perished on that ghastly day. You can read NASA’s recent press release about this here:
Today, Oppy is manouvering her robot arm over “Chester Lake”, the roughly heart-shaped plate of light bedrock she’s rolled up close to just to the east of Odyssey Crater on Cape York. Recent images taken by the rover’s forward facing hazard cameras offer a glimpse of the 9-11 tributes…
The best views I’ve found of the tribute on Oppy were taken on Sol 29 (day 29) of her mission, when she was still inside Eagle Crater. I’ve taken the raw images and turned them into a single colour image, which I’m putting here today as my own tribute.
So, as we remember the events of 9-11 2001 today, consider this. The fallen are not just being honoured in America, not just on Earth, but across the solar system. And the monsters who carried out those attacks then, and who are undoubtedly planning more attacks right now, will never, ever be able to understand the significance of that. They’ll never understand that while their lives are about death, destruction and hate, the lives of others – the vast, overwhelming majority of others – are about celebrating life, creating things and rejoicing in the joy of knowledge.
So, today, as you remember the events of 9-11, as you recall – because you won’t be able to stop yourself – where you where when it happened, or when you heard about it, just cast a glance at the sky and, mentally, stand beside Oppy as she stands on Cape York. The Sun will be shining on her from the tangerine-hued sky, glinting off her, off a small, rectangular piece of metal close to her RAT. That plate might be dust-covered by now, the Stars and Stripes design on it dulled and hard to see, but it’s there, and will be there for thousands of years.
And as long as a Mars Exploration Rover stands on Mars, in a museum or out on the surface of Mars where it eventually ended its mission, the victims of 9-11 will be remembered, their lives celebrated, their sacrifices honoured.