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Spirit: 6 years on Mars…

It’s hard – almost impossible – to believe that 6 years have passed since I sat staring at a tiny RealPlayer window on my computer’s screen, with my xth cup of coffee in my hands and my eyes bleary and sore after a long, sleepless night, and watched the live NASA TV coverage of Spirit’s landing on Mars. No broadband for me in those days, so the picture kept freezing and breaking up into a Matrix-like hazy cloud of pixels and digital crud, but the drama of the moment came through loud and clear, and when word went out that Spirit was down safely on Mars, and all the scientists and techs in the control room launched themselves out of their chairs and punched the air with delight, and relief, I actually shouted out with joy. YES!!!!!

The MER mission has been my Mars mission. I missed the Viking missions completely, I just wasn’t really aware of them; I was too young and had no access to computers or things like that. I kind of Pathfinder too; I wasn’t online yet, so I couldn’t access the NASA websites to see the pictures – generous friends used to print out sheaths of them and put them through my letterbox for me to drool over. But when MER came along I was ready – online, and raring to go.

The loss of Beagle 2, days before Spirit’s landing, was a crushing blow, just a terrible, terrible disappointment, so fingers, toes and everything else was crossed on Spirit’s landing day – or “ridiculously early hour of the morning” for those of us in the UK. I was actually a guest on a BBC Radio Cumbria show in the hours before the landing, a member of a panel which was meant to be discussing Mankind’s fascination with Mars and looking forward to the discoveries that the rovers would make. But the discussion, hosted by Richard Bacon, quickly degenerated into a “Is space exploration worth the money?” attack, and Richard Bacon seemed determined to make it as controversial as possible. Soon the science was ignored, and one “Angry from Hastings” caller after another came on air, ranting how obscene it was to be ‘wasting money on things like this’, and even though we tried to explain the value of Mars missions, and science in general, it soon became clear to myself and Ian Ridpath, another panellist, that the MER mission discussion had been swept aside, and that Bacon had no interest whatsoever in having a balanced discussion about it, so I wasn’t sad to get out of the studio and get back to my flat, and my computer, to watch that RealPlayer window, and keep logging back on again and again every time my connection failed – and it failed often!

After then the first images came back…

That was Mars… there, right there on my computer screen! Rocks! Dust! A horizon! We were Back On Mars…!!

I remember that I went out for a walk then, to get some fresh air. I’d been up for over 24 hours, simply unwilling to miss a moment of the great event. I’d stayed awake right through the night, and now, with daylight coming in through the curtains, I went out to walk up the quiet, deserted Main Street to go and get some Coke and a Sunday paper. I remember walking to the shop with a huge, stupid, Cheshire Cat smile on my face, rejoicing in the knowledge that out there, on Mars, a little wheeled robot was taking a look around its new home and taking pictures on my behalf. And I looked forward to three, perhaps four months of images from the Red Planet before the rover wore out and broke down and stopped working. It was going to be fantastic!

I had no idea, no idea at all, that half a dozen years later I’d still be staring at my screen, looking at images taken by Spirit.

A lot has changed in those six years. I have a better computer, a faster computer. Its screen is flat, not a great huge hulking bulky thing. I’ve stopped just looking at the images sent back by Spirit and now work with them to make them into panoramas, and mosaics, and 3D anaglyphs. I’m a member of the Unmannedspaceflight.com forum, which follows the MER mission literally hour by hour. I’ve written countless articles about the rovers, written about them in my children’s books, given Outreach talks about them in school classrooms, drafty church halls and Lottery-funded Community Centres. I’ve visited JPL and met the wonderful, enthusiastic and generous people who actually drive the rovers. I’ve met Steve Squyres, the incredible man who gave the world, and me, Spirit and Opportunity. I’ve written many, many poems about the rovers, and had them praised – and slammed! haha! – by people all around the world, and even saw them pinned up on walls at JPL, in the very rooms where the rovers are controlled from.

But I still get a shiver up my spine whenever I go online and see that there are new images for me to drool over. There are fantastic software programs and applications available that automatically download the images for you, and have them laid out on a silver platter for you to look at when you get up, but personally I love the thrill of doing it manually, the old fashioned way, of going to Exploratorium and finding that there’s a link there in blue, meaning yes, there are new images for me to look at!

Today, the rovers face very different futures. It’s looking increasingly like Spirit is not going to get out of her sandtrap, and will end her sols on Mars exactly where she is now. Opportunity, meanwhile, is ready to scoot off again towards Endeavour crater, after spending several weeks investigating a huge slab of ancient martian rock she found standing on the surface like a statue.

Me? I’m going to spend a few moments today celebrating the continuing success of the rovers, and being thankful that I was allowed to walk beside them for the past 6 years thanks to Steve Squyres and Jim Bell insisting that the MER images be made public as soon as possible, and not horded on hard drives for only mission scientists to look at like some agencies insist on doing (mentioning no names… cough… European Space Agency! cough…)

It’s no exaggeration to say that the MERs changed my life. Almost every day for the past 6 years I’ve started my day by going online and looking at the pictures that came down from the rovers overnight. I’ve – virtually – walked beside them for every metre of their epic Lewis and Clark trek across the Red Planet. I’ve felt elation when Spirit reached the top of Husband Hill, and despair when dust storms threatened to kill Opportunity. I’ve felt tears well up in my eyes as I saw Earth shining in Mars’ sky like a blue sequin through Spirit’s eyes, and grinned as Oppy pulled up to yet another gorgeous meteorite on the Meridiani plain. I’ve made great friends at JPL, like Scott, Sharon and Andy, and corresponded with Steve Squyres and Jim Bell, who, despite being ridiculously busy, still make time to talk to the people who follow their missions “out here”. I’ve shown images taken by the MERs to literally tens of thousands of people by now, young and old, and every time – EVERY time – I put one up on my screen I am thrilled by it.

One day one, or both, of the rovers will stop working, and the MER mission will be over. That will be a horrible day, a ghastly day for space enthusiasts and Mars nuts like myself who live this stuff, it really will. No more images. No new discoveries. No more Mars until the Mars Science Laboratory arrives. But we try not to think about that. We’re masters of denial. And today we’re happy. Today we celebrate!

And to celebrate the MERs’ 6 years on Mars, one of Unmannedspaceflight.com’s most accomplished image wizards, AstroO, has created some wallpapers and posters. They feature his fantastic artwork, and my latest MER-inspired poem too. I hope you’ll have a wander over to his blog and take a look at them, and join in with today’s celebrations.


6 years on Mars…. where the hell did they go?

12 Responses

  1. […] zum 6., Erinnerungen an die Landung; Astronomy Now, Space Today, Spiegel 4., Cumbrian Sky, Mars Pages 3., BBC Blog, Space.com, Mars Pages 2.1.2010, JPL Release, Blog, Science@NASA, […]

  2. A truly wonderful story, bringing back memories galore! But … why didn’t you watch events on CNN International, in full PAL resolution and 25 fps? They carried most of the key moments, and everything else one could follow … by telephone, through a high-quality audio feed from NASA TV. This is how I ‘brought home’ the MER landings to Germany, long before I even had an internet connection at home …

    • Because I didn’t have satellite TV! :-(( Yes, that would have made things a lot easier, but never mind. It was all part of the charm and drama, I think! 🙂

  3. Happy New Year to All of you guys.

  4. A absolutely admirable story, bringing aback memories galore! But … why didn’t you watch contest on CNN International, in abounding PAL resolution and 25 fps? They agitated best of the key moments, and aggregate abroad one could chase … by telephone, through a high-quality audio augment from NASA TV. This is how I ‘brought home’ the MER landings to Germany, continued afore I alike had an internet affiliation at home …

    • Glad you enjoyed the post! I didn’t have access to cable or satellite TV or anything fancy like that then, or else yes, I would have watched it over a rather better connection! 😉

  5. it was great!))

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  7. Great job mate! I like your work. Thanks for sharing

  8. A lot of weird comments on here. Happy I saw it again. Keep it up

  9. Great blog, have bookmarked

  10. Site muito bom, conteudo variado, fazendo o publico colocar a pagina como favorito rs… abraço

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