This is a very hard post to write. It’s one I’ve been dreading, for years, literally years, but there’s no putting it off any longer.
Overnight last night the final, Final, FINAL ‘Wake up, please?’ commands were sent to Opportunity, the absolutely last throw of the last dice. Its been 8 months since we last heard anything from her, and even as those last commands were being beamed from Earth we all hoped against hope that Oppy would stir, and bleep back a last minute “Ha! Had you fooled! Surprise!!” reply –
But Opportunity didn’t answer.
Barring some kind of miracle it looks like this evening’s (7pm) NASA press conference will be for the announcement that Opportunity’s mission is finally over. This day was always going to come, and it’s important for everyone to remember that Oppy – which we hoped would last for 90 days after landing – survived on Mars for more than 14 *years*, making discovery after discovery, showing us fascinating new sights day after day after day. But for those of us who have followed the mission so closely, from design through construction, launch and landing and all the wonderful days beyond, this is hard, and painful. Not because a machine of metal, wire and glass has stopped working, but because an amazing interplanetary adventure has ended; because an epic trek across the surface of an alien world has finished.
Many of us have ‘grown up’ following Oppy’s journey, she’s been a constant presence in our lives, and to lose that connection is going to be tough. It means no more new images to look at and play with; no more new horizons to gaze at and drive beyond; no more exciting “Look! There!” sightings of meteorites glinting in the sunlight in the distance; no more beautiful purple sunrises or sunsets. No more… anything from Opportunity.
And oh boy, it’s hard even typing those words, believe me.
I can’t even begin to imagine how the MER team are feeling today. Many have worked on it all their careers, it has been a huge part of both their professional and private lives for over a decade. They must be absolutely in pieces today.
For amateurs like me the loss of Oppportunity is less important, but it hurts just as much, believe me. Speaking for myself, I’m gutted, and feeling more than a little lost right now. In a way, the MER Mission of Spirit and Opportunity was ‘my Apollo’, the first space mission I followed, engaged with and invested in emotionally as an adult. I was there for the Voyager fly pasts, and the Viking landings, and the end of Apollo, but I was unaware of the start of those missions, I was too young and not as seriously ‘into space’ then. With MER I was onboard from the very start, and watched the launches and landings online – on *dialup*, on a tiny RealPlayer screen on my big pc, groaning every time the image broke up into a swirl of pixels or the stream buffered – and after the landings I logged on every single day (with a few exceptions) to view the images. At the start of the mission I was viewing those images on a dialup connection and saving them to floppy discs; by the end I was viewing them on my phone, walking to work, and saving them with a tap of my finger. Crazy. Unbelievable.
Over the years I’ve processed thousands of MER images, talked about Spirit and Opportunity to hundreds of groups of people, young and old, in shiny modern classrooms, drafty church halls and over-booked community centres. I’ve written magazine articles and poems about them. I’ve written about them in the books I’ve had published. I’ve written this ‘Road to Endeavour’ blog for over ten years, and have loved doing so, even though it has been hard work at times, and even though, for some reason, it has never been promoted or even acknowledged by the high profile space journalists of Twitter and Facebook who are wailing and gnashing their teeth so loudly today.
Truth be told, I don’t care. I’m just a space enthusiast with a passion for Mars who has lived and loved every sol of Opportunity’s epic Lewis and Clark trek across Barsoom – a space enthusiast who has made friends on the MER team – and been told by them that after all my work they consider me part *of* that team, part of the ‘MER family’ , and that means the world to me, as you can imagine.
This is genuinely the end of an era. Oppy’s “end of mission” will mean the MER mission has ended, full stop. That’s it. Line drawn under it, lights switched off, bye bye. It’s strange and weird to think that when Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 smartphones were science fiction. There was no Twitter. No Netflix. No Kardashians. No Trump. It was a gentler, lower-tech, less paranoid time, that seems as faraway now as the ages of the Egyptians or Vikings. Now the world we live in is very different, and the challenges we face might yet prove too hard to overcome. We’ll see. But it will be a world without a MER rover driving across Mars, sending us back womderful images daily.
Unless Oppy has beamed back a “Gotcha!” message in the past few hours, tonight’s NASA event will announce that the MER Mission is over, and yes, it’s going to be tough watching that press conference tonight. But those of us who have followed this incredible machine over the years, walking beside her mile after dusty mile, with our hand resting on her back, will feel both sadness and pride.
Opportunity wasn’t alive, none of us thought that, but she wasn’t ‘just a machine’ either. She represented our species’ spirit of exploration and our deep-rooted human need to see what’s down the road, over the next hill or around the next corner. For 15 years she represented the best that we can be when we put our minds to it, and use our gifts and skill to build and explore instead of kill and retreat behind walls. I’ll miss her, I’ll miss being with her on Mars, so much. So much. I’ll never get to Mars in person, I’m resigned to that now, but for a decade and a half I WAS on Mars, thanks to Opportunity, and Spirit. Their cameras were my wide-with-wonder eyes; their wheels were my restless feet; their robot arms were my trembling hands. They took me to Mars and showed me around, and I’ll love them – and their team – for that for the rest of my life.
Here’s one example of what Opportunity gave me, and everyone else who followed her so devotedly. On Sol 950 – when Opportunity had altready survived on Mars ten times longer than hoped – she was approaching the rim of Victoria Crater. The ground ahead of her was literally opening up…
On the far horizon, there was a bump, which no-one paid much attention to at the time because, well, VICTORIA WAS AMAZING!!!
At the time we didn’t know how important that bump would become…
That bump was actually the rim of Endeavour Crater, many, many kilometres away, impossibly far away, ridiculously far away. But years later Opportunity not only reached that bump, she drive up it, and on Sol 4682 Opportunity reached the summit of the rim, from where she had – and shared with us – this glorious top-of-the-world view…
Opportunity would never be so high – or so free – again.
And soon after, on Sol 500, she sent back images that we were able to assemble into a “selfie”. I’ll admit that when my version of that self portrait was finished – as crude and clumsy as it was compared to the ones others went on to make – I shed a tear. There she was, my girl, standing proudly on Mars in all her glory…
But this is it. For the past 240+ days we’ve all stood on Earth’s front porch, calling out Opportunity’s name into the darkness, desperately hoping that this time, *this* time she’d answer. But from the darkness we’ve heard nothing.
It’s time to let her go.
I’ll write another post after the press conference because I have something special I want to share with you. I hope you’ll come back and check it out.