Happy Birthday to Us…!

Yes, it’s “Road to Endeavour”s birthday today! Three years ago today, struggling to find a way to counter the disappointment of the two year delay of Curiosity’s departure for Mars I decided to start up a blog which would chronicle Oppy’s trek away from Victoria Crater and towards the much larger, much more epic Endeavour Crater, off a ways to the south east. At that time Endeavour seemed impossibly far away, and I mean impossibly far away – getting to its shattered rim would take Oppy several years, and she was, remember, already well into “borrowed time” as far as her life expectancy was concerned. But with nowhere else to go to after Victoria, off Oppy went, heading out into the deep Meridiani desert, to boldly go where no rover had gone before, or would go again for many lifetimes. It was an adventure of the craziest, most thrilling, most optimistic kind, and as Victoria receeded behind Oppy I think many of us wondered just which area of sand dunes up ahead would be Oppy’s final resting place, wondered how close we would actually get to Endeavour before Oppy, too exhausted to rove across and through the desert any more, stopped and radioed back “Enough, I’m done…”

On the day I started this blog, Oppy was here, just south of the serrated, crumbling edge of Victoria Crater…

…and here’s what she could see…

She had just started to edge into the band of bright, layered rocky “lilly pad” outcrops which border Victoria. You can see from that image (if you click on it to enlarge it) that there was a lot of detail in those rocks, leaves and sheafs of thin rock like the pages of an old, dusty, decaying book. Very different to what we’re seeing now! If you want to see more detailed views of that area, go back to the very start of this blog – the 3D images worked really well… 🙂

Then Oppy drove, and drove, and drove, metre after metre became kilometre after kilometre, and slowly but surely the distance to Endeavour shrank. But those of us following Oppy as she ploughed across the Great Meridiani Desert knew that each sunrise might be her last, each turn of her wheels might be the final turn. It was so far to Endeavour, so incredibly far, that while we all hoped she would make it, and urged her on every day, did we *really* believe she’d make it? I’m not at all sure I did. I said I did, of course, loyal to Oppy always, and to the amazing team behind her…but… but… oh Endeavour was so far away…

Then Spirit died, and suddenly Oppy’s goal seemed even more impossible. Mars had finally succeeded in killing one of the Two, by wickedly luring poor Spirit down a seemingly-clear track towards a too-good-to-resist science goal (the VonBraun hill) and then hiding a small crater in the middle of that track and camouflaging it with dust, just like hunters digging a hole in the jungle and covering it with leaves and twigs, waiting for an animal to walk across it and plunge to its doom into the pit below… and Spirit did just that, she drove into the crater and got stuck there, trapped like a baby mammoth in a tar pit, and no amount of technical wizardry from the team back on Earth could save her. Eventually the circuit-shattering cold of Mars sent Spirit into a numbed, deep sleep from which she never awoke… leaving Oppy alone on Mars, to carry on the MER mission on her own, and to this day I still can’t shake off the mental image I had then of Oppy being left all alone on Mars like that little droid in the garden at the end of SILENT RUNNING…

Oppy drove on. Slowly, the hills marking the faraway rim of Endeavour grew taller and clearer. Every sol Oppy drew closer to the great crater.

Three years after I started this blog, Oppy is standing proud and tall on the rim of Endeavour crater, looking down from the summit of Cape York at a breathtaking landscape…

Her latest most beautiful images are of “Saddleback”, this intriguing-looking  flat-topped ridge of ancient, dust-coated rock…

Soon she’ll be moving on again, in search of a north-facing slope to spend the winter. She’s in remarkably good shape for such an ageing rover, and she has every chance of discovering those precious “Holy Grail” phyllosilicates on Mars before Curiosity even gets her monster truck wheels dirty. She really is – and I make no apology for saying this again, and again – an incredible machine, and the people behind her are even more incredible.

But perhaps the *most* incredible this is the way that we have all been allowed to take part in this amazing adventure of exploration and discovery, through our computers and the internet. The policy of releasing rover images almost in real time, and allowing – actually, encouraging – people “out here” beyond the walls of JPL and NASA to do whatever the hell we want with them has meant we’ve all been able to virtually walk alongside Oppy all these years, seeing what she sees, standing with her on the tops of ridges and on the edges of craters, drinking in her spectacular views of Mars. That’s never happened before. So thank you again to Steve Squyres and Jim Bell and everyone else who made that possible.

Anyway, here we are… three years! To be honest I didn’t really think I’d still BE writing this blog now when I started it in December 2008, I thought surely Mars would find a devilish, wicked, cruel way to kill Oppy like she had done Spirit, but I couldn’t be more delighted that I was wrong about that. Oppy is still going strong, and as hard work as it is to keep writing it, and producing the images it’s illustrated with, this blog will continue to chronicle her journey across Mars, and her exploration of Endeavour Crater, for as long as her wheels keep turning, her gears keep whirring and her eyes can see.

I’m under no illusions that this blog is important, or that it matters in any way, I don’t do it for that. I do it because I love Mars, love the rovers, and want to make sure people “out there” have a place to go to to follow Oppy’s amazing journey across the face of an alien world. If you’re a regular reader, thank you for walking with me alongside Oppy all these months! If you’re a new reader, well, welcome, I hope you enjoy what you have seen so far and will keep coming back.

Because I have a feeling that, as exciting as these past seven years have been, Oppy’s greatest discoveries lie ahead of her. Perhaps not on these gentle slopes and low ridges of Cape York, but on the steeper hillside of Tribulation further south. To get there will be challenging, another “whole new mission”, but I think that’s where Oppy’s greatest triumph, and her destiny, lies.

Buckle up.

The best is yet to come… 🙂


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9 Responses to Happy Birthday to Us…!

  1. Ildiko Ross says:

    Congratulations on 3 years of a wonderful blog! I hopped on the “Road to Endeavour” about 2 years ago and I really appreciate how much time and work you have invested in sharing this journey with us. Thanks for pointing out unusual features on Oppy’s path, by selecting and processing specific images, including the ones I think of as the “close-ups”; for the interviews with the engineers and scientists who have given us the incredible gift of exploring Mars alongside Oppy and Spirit; for appreciating the historical context of the MERs; your poetry and especially, your infectious enthusiasm.


  2. Ramón Malledo says:

    Celebrando con usted los tres años de su excelente blog de informaciones que generosamente ha brindado la NASA y la colaboración de muchos particulares que ponen su trabajo al servicio del público. Sr. Atkinson, de no haber sido por su recopilación, redacción y constancia, nosotros los que desde todo el mundo queremos saber de la exploración de planetas y en especial de Marte no estaríamos actualizados. Felicitaciones y muchos exitos en adelante “explorando el endeavour”

    Disculpe pero mi inglés es muy elemental. El traductor google lo expresará en inglés mejor que yo.
    Atte R.Malledo (Caracas, Venezuela)

  3. Astro0 says:

    Thanks Stu for the chronicle of this marvellous adventure and your fantastic way of putting everything in neat context that we can all understand. The fact that you have been able to interview some of the key players in the mission who quite literally have their hands on the wheel (or keyboard in this instance) and ask the questions that we are all burning to ask them is what makes the Road to Endeavour such an enjoyable path to travel along.

  4. Happy birthday, with thanks . . . . I started following along here soon after you got started, and it’s been a treat to see the trek to Endeavour through both Opportunity’s AND your eyes . . . well done!!!

  5. Jose says:

    Thanks for all Stu. You are my first source of information about rovers, and later NASA hehehe

  6. Buck says:

    Happy birthday!

  7. Cordy Cooke says:

    Stu, I discovered your blog, in march 09, from an article on Universe Today (along with Unmanned Spaceflight and Emily at the Planetary Society, all at the same time). Before RtoE etc. I would religiously visit the MER site and try to put the mosaics together in my head. I will never be able to adequately express my feelings of joy and wonder due to your contribution. thank you.

  8. MoreInput says:

    Thanks a lot for the last three years of this marvelous travel diary and your wonderful pictures. I think it is the first travel of many others, that will follow years after this journey.

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