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5 Years Later…


Five years ago, space enthusiasts and scientists alike were celebrating the arrival of the second Mars Exploration Rover on the Red Planet. Three weeks after Spirit giddily bounced and boinged her way across the dust-smothered, rock-strewn floor of the huge Gusev Crater before coming to a halt, Opportunity – in what has been called the greatest “hole in one shot in history”, landed and then rolled slowly and serenely down into a shallow crater called Eagle. When she opened her eyes Oppy found herself staring at a beautiful band of layered, crumbling bedrock, jutting out of the side of the crater. The MER team couldn’t believe their eyes, or their luck, and the cheers that rang out were probably audible to Oppy herself as she stood there, gazing longingly and hungrily at El Capitan and the countless thousands of “berries” scattered around it. It was an amazing moment, and I am proud to say that I was there when it happened, watching it all live on my computer, watching events unfold on NASA TV. I cried when I heard that Oppy had survived her fiery plummet through that almost vacuum-thin wisp of gases that passes for an atmosphere around Mars, on that morning when my creaking chair was suddenly a front row seat as history was made and my tired old computer monitor became a window looking out on the future…

Five years later, remarkably, amazingly, impossibly, both rovers are still roving. They’ve survived on Mars twenty times – twenty times! – longer than we thought they would. They’ve faced, and overcome, every challenge, every problem thrown at them by Mars and Man. They’ve refused to succumb to the lethal martian environment, laughing in the face of dust storms that have smothered their solar panels with a layer of thick, cloying, clogging, energy-starving fines. They’ve shrugged off the perishing cold of the long martian nights, and squeezed every last possible drip and drop of energy from the shrunken Sun that burns in Mars’ sky. They’ve refused to break down and cry “Enough!”, despite enduring a catalogue of technical failures, software faults, computer crashes and worse, and have sent back to Earth tens if not hundreds of thousands of images and enough scientific data to keep even the youngest planetary scientists busy for the rest of their careers.  

Five years after landing on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity are Still Roving.

And you know what? I’m so proud of them, and of the men and women who designed and built them, and of the amazing people who drive them, and of the engineers who keep them alive sol after sol, and of the software techs who transform the rovers’ chirps and chirrups into breathtaking images of eroded craters, weathered boulders and salmon-hued skies that I could burst. And I love the rovers themselves to bits.

I know that many people think that space enthusiasts like myself who think this way, who have such string feelings for a pair of soul-less, unaware, dusty, tired robots are silly, if not stupid. They laugh at us for investing so much time and emotion in the rovers and their missions. They deride us as “rover huggers”, and criticise us for giving the rovers human characteristics and behaviour, tell us they’re Just Robots.

I don’t care. I don’t give a ****. Spirit and Oppy have given us a new Mars, a Mars worthy of our imagination and love. I genuinely believe that in years to come historians will say that the greatest achievement of the MER mission wasn’t the confirmation that Mars was wetter and warmer in the past, it was that Spirit and Opportunity, through their travels, and through their stunning imagery, changed Mars in the minds of the public from a distant, vaguely-interesting planet to a world, a real world, with real and beautiful sunsets and sunrises, stunning mountains and valleys and huge, heartachingly-lovely skies painted in subtle shades of lemon, butterscotch and pink. The MERs have made Mars seem less alien and more familiar; each image returned and put up on the internet for all to see has screamed out to us “Look! This is a place you – yes, YOU! – could explore, you would feel at home here!”

No other space mission has done this. Viking didn’t capture the public’s imagination like the rovers have, and although Cassini has sent back tens of thousands of stunning images of Saturn, its multitude of moons and its magical rings, Saturn still seems a cold, distant, unreachable planet, as alien as it is beautiful.

No. The rovers are special. Maybe they’re not alive like we are, but I defy anyone to tell me they’re not alive in their own way. They might not have the beating hearts of pulsing muscle and flesh we humans have, but they have Heart. They might not have a soul, but they have spirit. They might only be small, but they carry the hopes and dreams, the fears and expectations and the best wishes and love of millions of people on their backs.

We live in very difficult times. Our financial systems teeter on the edge of an abyss, and one good push will surely send them screaming over the edge. Wars are everywhere; the screams of men, women and children echo forlornly in the night as countries snarl and scratch at each other across their borders. Terrorists are intent on painting the sky itself with blood. Politicians lie and cheat and spin to save face and secure themselves a note in the margin of the history books while the people they were elected by feel hope ebbing away, as their jobs are ripped away, their income falls, and their pleas for help from The Powers That Be are carried away on the wind. Some days it seems as if the very planet itself is weary and sick of us. If I was Earth I’d be ashamed of us.

And yet… and yet…

On a blood-red spark of light, many millions of miles away, two robots are exploring on our behalf. They were imagined, built and sent out into space by Us. They were guided down to a safe landing on Barsoom by us. Every day for the past five years they have been driven by Us. They are teaching Us – with every slow turn of their weary wheels, with every laboured whirr of their robot arms and every exhausted blink of their scratched and dust-etched electronic eyes – about a planet that has a vice-like grip on our imaginations and our hopes for the future, and every line, every word they write down on the great blank pages of Mars’ history teaches us about our own place in the Universe.

When it comes to the manned exploration of space we have lost our way, but even as we stare longingly at the sky, and mourn for our lost future, every day they wake up and talk to us Spirit and Opportunity give us more reasons to be proud, and celebrate… and give us hope that maybe, just maybe, one day we will fulfill our potential.

One Response

  1. Well done, Stu. As far as taking the public along for the ride, their only rival is Voyager.

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