Has Opportunity’s “time passed”? Hell no.

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I’m not getting much shut eye at the moment – combination of lots of editing work to do, a huge partial solar eclipse public viewing event to plan, and a cat that seems to take a cruel delight in jumping on me at 4am and doing a Riverdance on my head, demanding to be fed and played with – so I might be a little sleep-deprived. In fact I must be, because that’s the only explanation I can come up with for the ridiculous dream I had the other day.

I dreamed – and you’re going to laugh at this, I know – that the NASA Administrator, an ex-astronaut and the guy who is supposed to champion the Administration and its achievements, actually told a bunch of politicians, during a discussion about the space agency’s budget, that he wasn’t going to support funding Opportunity’s mission for the coming year because… and this is the most insane part, I’m not making this up… “We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed.”

I know! I know!! Man, I really have to try to get some quality sleep and stop eating that cheese before I go to bed –

What? Really? He actually said that? It wasn’t a dream? The NASA Administrator actually thinks that Opportunity’s “time has passed”???

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Er, sorry, Charles, I’m a bit confused. Because I could have sworn that an independent review panel recently judged Opportunity to be the best performing mission of ALL your Mars missions, ranking above every other piece of hardware you have driving on or whizzing around the planet. I could have sworn that eleven years… eleven years!! … after landing on Mars, Opportunity – which, you’ll all recall, we hoped would last 90 days and drive a kilometre before Mars murdered her – is still working well, and has driven more than 40 kilometres. I was sure that after crossing dozens kilometres of desert, exploring many craters and studying a museum gallery’s worth of meteorites, Opportunity is now exploring fascinating geology on the top of a mountain, which she scaled against all the odds, proving many people wrong. I could be mistaken, but I was absolutely convinced that having done all that, Opportunity is now preparing to enter a beautiful Barsoomian Big Country valley, which orbital studies have shown contains a remarkable amount of clay-bearing minerals, one of the things she was sent to Barsoom to look for in the first place..?

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If I didn’t dream that then what the hell is going on?

Officially the background to this bizarre situation – the possibility that a functioning, efficient, popular Mars rover, set to carry out some of its most exciting scientific studies yet, might be abandoned – is, of course, money-related. Bolden says that he can’t afford to keep Opportunity (and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, another mission which ranked very highly in that aforementioned independent review) running and fund other missions too, namely the next Mars lander, INSIGHT. On the face of it that might make sense, there’s only so much money to go around, but Planetary Society writer and space advocate Casey Drier has done a fantastic job of demolishing that claim in a brilliant piece on the Planetary Society’s blog, which you can read here.

To quote from his piece, “The vast majority of the money that will ever be spent on InSight has already been spent. For the entirety of InSight’s development, from 2012 to now, Opportunity continued to explore the martian surface. It’s clearly not a choice between Opportunity and InSight, they’ve coexisted happily during the most expensive period of InSight’s life cycle.”

So that’s basically rubbish, dodgy, scaremongering then.

So what’s the real reason?

Well, lots of people are suggesting that this is just a ploy to squeeze more money out of Congress by threatening to axe a good, solid mission which is still returning good, solid science.

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They point out that this crazy game of Politics vs Science Chicken has been played by NASA before and NASA has won previous rounds, thus cleverly securing further funding for the missions that were under budgetary pressure. And I was prepared to believe that myself – until I read what Bolden had actually said. If he had told that Committee “Well, after all these years on Mars Opportunity is still a wonderful machine, and still has the potential to do great science and make more discoveries, but as much as we want to we can’t afford to keep her working with the budget on the table…” and then looked up at the Committee with big, sad eyes I would have believed those saying this is all just a ploy, crossed my fingers and wished him luck…

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But that’s not what he said. What he said was this:

We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed…”

That’s not what you say if you personally support a mission and want to fight for it and its teams, is it? That’s not what you say if you actually want, in your heart, to see it continue. It really does seem as if Bolden is happy to see Opportunity switched off – or rather, taken out and dumped on a highway like an unwanted dog, because, as I understand it, the rover can’t be “switched off”; it has no On/Off switch. Ending Opportunity’s mission would basically just mean NASA turning its back on the rover and letting it die on Mars, as its power runs down and its systems fail.

Why would he want to do that? Why is the NASA Administrator, a champion of science, prepared to sign the death warrant for the best performing Mars mission of the moment, which is arguably the most successful and most popular NASA Mars mission ever? A mission sending back views like this..?

pano Mar 14

Well, I have a theory, and it’s not a pretty one. Not everyone will agree with it, and it will probably mean I get a lot of critical or abusive responses, but that’s ok, it shows people are reading.

You see, I’ve thought for a while now that NASA, as an agency, is frustrated by Opportunity’s refusal to die. She wasn’t meant to live this long, or drive this far. And let’s be honest, really she should have died years ago, long before she even reached Endeavour Crater, never mind scaled Cape Tribulation to stand triumphantly on its summit. By now the media spotlight should have been shining on Curiosity and Curiosity alone. By now the public should have forgotten all about the plucky little Mars Exploration Rovers and should have been hopelessly in love with the bigger, badder, sexier Mars Science Laboratory as it works its way up the gateau-layered slopes of Mt Sharp. But while Curiosity crawls across Mars on its ragged wheels – still some way from the base of Mt Sharp, no matter what NASA announced some time ago – Opportunity is still there, still roving, still taking and sending home staggeringly-beautiful images of the martian landscape and still carrying out valuable, textbook-revising science.

NASA is making a big deal out of Curiosity approaching a mountain, while Opportunity has already climbed one, danced on its summit, took pictures of the view to send back home, and is now working her way along the top, as happy as Kanye West with a new Beyonce album.

Although, really, unless you’re a “rover hugger” like me you wouldn’t know that. NASA seems to have quietly turned its back on Opportunity, and now reports on her adventures and discoveries are largely conveyed to the public by bloggers and science journalists. The public are still fascinated by the rover, and a loyal and enthusiastic community of rover fans continues to follow her mission avidly, devouring each new panorama, straining to see over and beyond each new horizon she sees. To a large number of people Opportunity is still an inspiration, and her ongoing adventure is full of romance, discovery and excitement.

Meanwhile, despite its best efforts, NASA’s “star” rover, Curiosity, crawling across Mars on its wrecked wheels, has largely failed to capture the public’s or the media’s hearts. I remember how, before its launch, MSL was promoted heavily as an astrobiology mission; it was going to Mars to hunt for evidence of past life, of at least to see if conditions on Mars long ago had been supportive of life. But that side of the mission has been lost, and now MSL is yet another martian field geologist, very, very slowly conducting a thorough but unexciting ground survey. Her landing site, in Gale Crater, might be a scientific wonderland, covered in rocks and layers which make geology-savvy scientists squeee like Serenity fans coming face to face with Nathan Dillon at ComicCon,  but compared to Opportunity’s views from the top of Cape Tribulation it looks deadly dull on photos, at least to the public who don’t realise how amazing its crystal clear images of parchment-thin layers and wiggly bright mineral veins are.

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I think it’s fair to say that the public simply hasn’t engaged with MSL as it did with MER. I know, from my discussions with members of the public during my own Outreach activities that they haven’t embraced the mission in the same way, they don’t feel part of it. Why? Maybe it’s because it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Maybe it’s because its science team doesn’t engage with the public in the same way the MER team does, and doesn’t promote their mission’s successes and achievements as well. Maybe it’s because MSL doesn’t have a passionate, enthusiastic figurehead like Steve Squyres to put across just how amazing the mission is. Maybe it’s all those things, or none of them. But I know, personally, that Out There there’s no real love for Curiosity.

And to be absolutely clear before anyone has a go at me, I don’t mean any disrespect to Curiosity or her science teams when I say that. I’m not trying to pitch one rover, or one team, against the other. MSL is a magnificent machine and is conducting valuable science. Her science teams are every bit as passionate about Mars as the MER teams, I’m sure, and they deserve to have their hard work acknowledged and rewarded just as every other science team working on these cutting edge of technology projects does. But for various reasons MSL has not exactly set the world beyond its science team’s office doors alight with its mission so far, has it?

And Curiosity has been criticised by scientists and the scientific media too, quite badly in fact, especially after it came far below Opportunity in that recent review. How that must have rankled the NASA higher ups, to have had old, clanky, dust-covered Opportunity outrank their shiny, big beast, nuclear-powered Curiosity.

With all that in mind it’s not hard to imagine a red-faced Bolden sitting in his office, holding a model of Opportunity in his shaking hand and sticking pins in it, hissing “Why don’t you just DIE?????”

Melodramatic, I know. But with Opportunity showing no signs of dying any time soon, the question has to be asked – has it been decided that the rover which refuses to die should be put to sleep, to allow the other rover to have the spotlight and the glory all to itself?

I hope not. Oh, I hope not. I don’t want to believe that. I really, really want to be wrong, and for Someone Who Knows to reassure me that this is not the case, to tell me that I’ve grabbed the wrong end of the stick here and that this really is just a ploy to get more money.

But… but… I keep going back to what Bolden actually said, in public, to the people in control of that money. You read it again: “We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed.” Not “…and missions without some more money“, but “…whose time has passed.”

No. I’m not having that. Sorry, Mr Bolden, I have huge respect for you, for your career and achievements, but you are just wrong. Let’s be clear here – Opportunity’s “time” has NOT passed. Yes, she is old. Yes, she is tired. Yes, parts of her are not working as well as they were. But she is not falling apart. She is not a space age clown car with wheels and fenders flying away in all directions. To hear Bolden speak you would think that she was a weary old family pet dog that should be put out of its misery because it can’t control its bowels any more, and has to drag itself across the floor on its bony backside because its legs don’t work, instead of an incredibly productive scientific laboratory which is standing proudly at the mouth of a martian valley which might turn out to be the scientific Narnia her science teams have been dreaming of.

This is what really puzzles me, what I really am struggling to get my head around. Instead of counting his blessings, instead of trumpeting the fact that NASA has not one but *two* brilliant rovers on the surface of another planet, and fighting for both, Bolden appears to be happy to sacrifice one and halve – halve – NASA’s science capability on and returns from the rocky plains and mountaintops of the Red Planet without a fight. That’s crazy. That’s bizarre. That’s foolish.

As I said, my theory might be way off the mark, and I honestly hope it is. This might all be in my head, which is an amusement park at the best of times, as regular readers will know. But I still can’t shake this sneaking suspicion that Opportunity has become something of a burden, even an embarrassment to certain people or groups at NASA and they wish it would just go away. I can’t help wondering if, instead of working with the MSL team to improve the mission’s PR, and improve its science return, and help it climb up that league table of missions, they are going to use the imminent “crossing the Marathon finishing line” moment – which should be a cause for celebration – as an opportunity to declare Opportunity’s mission is over, thank her for her service, pin a virtual medal on her chest, and then abandon her to her fate on Barsoom.

Reading that back I actually want to scold myself. That’s ridiculous, surely. Fantasy! It must be!

Then I read this quote again…

We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed…

…and my heart sinks.

And my blood boils.

If they do this, if they give up on Opportunity – for whatever reason, either because they want to boost the profile of MSL or because they haven’t the will to fight for more money, or they simply can’t be bothered to keep her going any more – then it will be folly of the grandest order, and we should not let them get away with it.

In this time of budget restraints and tough choices, Opportunity is one of the best ambassadors NASA has, her team one of NASA’s greatest weapons in this worsening war against science. At a time when the black-clad, science-fearing lunatics of ISIS are demolishing temples and statues which have stood for a thousand years, anyone, anywhere in the world, with an internet connection, can go online and see new, beautiful images from Opportunity every day, of landscapes taken from high up on the rim of an ancient crater ON MARS. To lose that would be nothing short of disgraceful scientific vandalism, and a huge mistake on NASA’s part.

Mars itself should be the one to end Opportunity’s mission. She deserves that much.

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4 Responses to Has Opportunity’s “time passed”? Hell no.

  1. dekeyserm says:

    Also Curiosity is way passed her warranty period. With a faulty arm, a failing laser, flat tires, and a bunch of other defects, this nowhere-going ultra-slow-motion vehicle may be taken out of circulation before Oppy. Maybe that Is what he meant?

  2. Serpens says:

    45 years ago NASA had men walking on the moon. Today they can’t even get a man into low Earth orbit. Pulling the plug on Opportunity will simply be yet another indication of decline.

  3. Gerhard Bärwald says:

    Oh Lord ! You made my day with this Words. You made me even laugh sometimes despite of beeing sad…
    Could please someone inform Bolden, that there is enough money stashed away and fixed from global monopoly-players like Goldman-Sachs and others? Or other money-rain, poored down on terrorist-training camps worldwide?
    Could perhaps someone think about the honour for the american people and the historical moment and the hearts of the technicians and — a lot more? And this is my opinion = coming from a german…

  4. Paul says:

    What is most amazing to me: it is very costly to get a new rover to Mars and on top of that: landings do fail regularly. Opportunity already IS on Mars, in working order, and entering into never before seen territory. Extending the working life of Opportunity is dollar-wise, not wasting dollars.

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