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Farewell, Spirit…

This is a post I’ve been preparing to write – and dreading writing – literally for years. I’ve been putting off starting it all morning, I just haven’t been able to bring myself to sit down at this desk and start typing, as if, somehow, by delaying that it would change things. It won’t. It hasn’t. Time to get it over with.

As you probably guessed from the title of this post, the news broke last night that the mission of the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit”, the first of the pair of rovers to land on Mars all those years ago, has now been all but officially ended. Earlier this morning the final set of commands – heartfelt electronic pleas to the rover to phone home – was beamed to Mars, in the hope that Spirit would reply, and let us know, after a year of silence, that yes, she was okay. Nothing has come back from Mars, and it’s now the case that NASA’s huge Deep Space Network dishes will only cock an ear towards Mars, in the hope of hearing something from the rover, when time and money allows, which is effectively a declaration that Spirit’s mission on Mars is over. There’s always a faint, dim, flickering chance that Spirit, drama queen to the last, will now call us and come back to life… but I don’t think even the most loyal, most diehard rover team member or enthusiast believes that is going to happen.

Very, very reluctantly, and with obvious great sadness and disappointment, NASA has stopped calling into the deep forest for  Spirit, turned away, and come home,to concentrate on supporting her sister rover, “Opportunity”, as she speeds towards Endeavour Crater, and to prepare to support the next Mars rover, “Curiosity”, which is hoped will launch before the end of the year.

Read the NASA press release here

Obviously for rover huggers like myself, this is horrible – if expected and inevitable – news, and when the story broke last night I was genuinely very upset. But I’m just an armchair follower. It’s impossible, surely, to imagine just how crushing a blow and what  a terrible time this is for all the MER team who worked on Spirit’s mission. They’ve hung on, hoping against hope, for many months now, going into work every day wondering if it would be the day Spirit finally beeped back. Now they have to face a one rover future. And as amazing as Opportunity is, I know many of the MER team, and the people at JPL, were incredibly fond of Spirit, the rover that seemed to have to fight like a bear for every metre she drove, every rock she reached and every image she took. To those engineers, techs, and everyone else, this will feel like a very real loss, and although my sympathies will be of absolutely no use to them whatsoever I offer them anyway.

Many people won’t understand what all the fuss is about. They’ll be thinking “So what”? After all, Spirit wasn’t alive, she – it – was a robot, a machine, essentially a platform with wheels and gears and pipes that carried a suite of scientific instruments across Mars, taking pictures, making measurements and doing science. No-one’s died, a machine has stopped working, that’s all.

Those people are completely, completely, missing the point.

Yes, Spirit was a machine. She wasn’t born, she was designed and then built, just like… like a car, or a washing machine, or a toaster. But she went to Mars, to MARS for pity’s sake, falling through its near-vacuum sky in a fireball before slamming into its surface inside a so-fragile shell of airbags, just one bounce away from disaster the whole time she boinged across the planet’s surface. But she survived, and then went on to drive across its surface for YEARS, scaling mountains, crossing a desert, and so much more. She took tens of thousands of pictures, all of which were beamed back to Earth for us to see. She outlived her expected lifespan by YEARS, and drove ridiculously farther than she was expected to. She survived dust storms, circuit-freezing temperatures, technical and software faults to revolutionise our understanding of Mars in a way that will take another generaton to truly appreciate, I believe.

Before coming to a premature stop on the edge of Homeplate, Spirit had done everything we’d asked of her, and so, so much more. But in the end Mars – which clearly resents the presence of every machine we Terrans dare to send to study her – won, and killed her, but had to resort to trickery and deception to do it, wickedly placing a camouflaged crater in Spirit’s path which she then blundered into like a baby mammoth stumbling into a tar pit. And after an angry and frustrated whirring of wheels, and a kicking up of cinnamon-hued dust, there she stayed.

For a while she tried to free herself, and seemed to be having some success, and to this day there are those who believe that if she’d had just a little more time to keep trying she’d have made it, and continued her epic trek across Gusev crater. But the changing of the martian seasons was against her and her team had to order her to hunked down and wait for conditions to improve. When they did, Spirit remained silent. Now, more than a year after falling silent, she has simply run out of time here on Earth, too, and the difficult decision to stop calling out to her from across the gulf of space has been taken.

Spirit’s magnificent mission to Mars is over. Time to say goodye.

I can’t imagine how the MER team are feeling. I won’t insult them by trying to put myself in their shoes, or at their desks. But I do know how I am feeling, and how countless thousands – maybe even millions – of  “Rover fans” around the world will be feeling today: gutted, and very, very sad.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been following the MER mission since its very beginning. I was “there” when the rovers were being built, following each and every development, celebrating every major milestone that was reached between the starty of their construction and their delivery to the Cape. I was there – virtually – at their launches and landings, which I watched on tiny 2″ x 2″ Realplayer screens, over a dialup connection, with the image shattering into a Tron-like kaleidescope of pixels every few minutes. I stayed up all night to watch the landings, kept going with copious amounts of coffee and Maltesers, and was still awake when their first images were released by NASA, almost in real time. From that moment each rover became a huge part of my life.

Since Spirit and Opportunity landed, seven years agom, I’ve looked at their images from Mars every single day, apart from the odd day here and there when I couldn’t get online for some reason, like a technical failure, house move or holiday. I feel like I’ve walked beside both rovers as they trundled across Mars, my boots crunching on the rocks and dust as their wheels rolled and rolled and rolled. So, in my head and in my heart, if not in person, I was there with Spirit when she drive off her her landing platform and surveyed her surroundings, and looked to the far horizon, for the first time. I was there as she hauled herself across the Gusev floor to reach the Columbia Hills. I climbed those hills with her, past outrops and weathered boulders, and stood with her in triumph on the summit of Husband Hill to look down on dust devils whirling and swirling across the crater floor far below. I watched the Sun rise and set with her, and saw shooting stars zip silently across her star-dusted sky.

And I was walking beside her, helplessly, when she drove innocently over the crusted surface of Troy and became trapped in it. If I’d been there for real – after shouting a few Terran expletives at the pink martian sky – I’d have been able to push or pull her out, or I’d at least have tried. as it was, like everyone else, all I could do was watch in despair at her wheels spinning in vain, digging herself deeper and deeper into the dust. At the time, I was pretty sure she’d get out again, and soon. But as days became weeks, and weeks became months, my confidence shrank, and I began to realise that Spirit, the great survivor, the ultimate defiant, might not get out of her dusty trap.

She hasn’t, and now NASA itself has turned away from her, reluctantly surrendering her to Mars. And in here, I feel a terrible sense of defeat, and sadness, and loss. Not the same sense of loss one feels after losing a living person, a friend or a relative, but the loss one feels after an incredibly special experience has ended.

Barring a miracle there’ll be no more pictures or data from Spirit. No more beautiful views of the Columbia Hills glowing orange in the sunlight; no more views of the capped summit of Von Braun looming up ahead; no more silver-blue sunsets, or starry nights. We’ll see Spirit again though, I’m sure: I can’t believe the MRO team will never turn the orbiter’s HiRISE camera on the rover again. In fact, keeping a close eye on Spirit in the months and years to come will tell NASA’s engineers and techs a great deal about the martian environment and how long term exposure to it can affect a spacecraft. No, we’ll see Spirit again, I’m sure of that. But the next time we do it’ll be in the knowledge that we’ll never hear from her again, that we’re looking at a dead robot. And that is going to hurt.

And slowly, slowly, over the months, Spirit will fade from our view. Covered by more and more dust she’ll blend into her surroundings like a chameleon. There might come a day when we just can’t pick her out any more.

But this isn’t the end of the MER mission of course, far from it! The bright torch of exploration will now be carried proudly by Opportunity, and she is currently making great progress on her trek to the rim of Endeavour crater, which seemed impossibly and arrogantly far away when she set off from Victoria crater but now feels almost close enough to touch. All being well, Oppy will roll up onto the edge of Endeavour in the late summer, and when she does there will be great celebrations… and, I’m sure, some lingering sadness that Spirit wasn’t around to share in the moment.

So, this is farewell to Spirit. She was an amazing machine, designed, built and controlled by incredible people, and transformed the old Mars of the Vikings and Mariners  into a New, much more epic, much more noble and far more beautiful Mars, a world of ice-blue sunsets and dervish dust devils. She showed us ancient powdery dust as white as chalk beneath Mars’ biscuit brown crust. And, most importantly of all, with her eye-height cameras, she showed us the first ever view of Mars as it would appear to a human standing on its surface. That changed everything.

Of course, she’ll never really go away, not as long as there are people willing to explore Mars and send robots there to uncover its secrets. Every one of those machines will follow in Spirit’s tracks.

And one day – maybe in fifty years, maybe in a hundred and fifty – an astronaut will stand on the top of Husband Hill and, sweeping the valley below with their image enhancers, spot a familiar-looking…something… to the right of Homeplate. After skittering down the hill they’ll bounce towards it in the low gravity, and then smile a huge, beaming chsehire cat smile when they recognise Spirit, standing there, thick and fat with orange, brown and caramel-coloured dust. Carefully, tenderly, they’ll reach out with a gloved hand and brush some of the dust off the rover’s back, revealing the solar panels beneath, and the famous NASA and JPL logos. I hope – but doubt – I’ll be around to see that, but I know, in here, that it will happen. One day.

And beyond that, I know, for certain, because it’s the only thing that we can do to honour them properly, one day Spirit and Oppy will both stand proudly on display in a Great Museum of Mars, brushed clean, polished and repaired until they look as beautiful and perfect as they did on the day they landed on Mars all those centuries before. Every sol thousands of people, from worlds scattered across the solar system, will stand before them and marvel at them, leaning forward to see and be amazed by how small their cameras, wheels and solar arrays were. I envy them.

All that’s in the future. Today we’re allowed to be sad, even as we celebrate Spirit’s time and achievements on Mars. Today we can give thanks for the amazing adventure Spirit had, and we all took part in, thanks to the groundbreaking policy decision to put all her images online as soon as possible after they were beamed back to Earth. And today we must spare a thought for all the men and women who invested so much of their time, so much of their lives, in the MER mission, because they must feel like someone’s cut a Spirit-shaped hole out of them right now.

If it’s any consolation to them, they should know that Spirit will never be cold and alone on Mars, because there will always be a million arms wrapped around her.

To close, here’s part of a poem I wrote to mark this moment in time. I’ll post the whole poem, which is quite a bit longer, after the NASA TV “goodbye” press conference next week.

When the switch finally flicks to “Off” and, groaning,

The great DSN dishes reluctantly swing away

From the garnet spark of Mars, ordered to listen

No more, do not mourn for MER #2.

Celebrate her life. Remember

Her Mission Impossible climbs, her daring dashes across

Dusty plates of rust-red rock; her ice-cold

Sunsets and shooting star-filled nights.

Remember her conquest of Husband Hill

Gazing on Mars from its Olympian height.

When the SETI-like search for her signal is done,

Some will dismiss her passing

As a mere mechanical failure,

Laugh mockingly “Don’t be silly,

It’s just a broken old machine.”

That, in part, is true: you and I know

She was a mechanism, built, not born,

Constructed, not conceived.

She had no pulse – no soft skin fluttered

At her wrist – nor lips to gently kiss her kin

Goodnight. She was not alive.

But while she was built

Of polished glass, metal and tight-

Wound wire, she was made with love,

And heart and hope, by good people

Who believed with all their souls

That one day she should fly, then drive

Across the stony deserts of Barsoom.

So even as we mourn, think of this:

In Mankind’s over-the-horizon future,

When ten thousand centuries have scudded past

Like snowflakes carried on the wind and Mars

Is blue – with oceans, lakes and streams – again,

The name “Spirit” will still make martians smile,

And, lifting their eyes up to the glacial blue sky,

Whisper “Thank You…”

© Stuart Atkinson 2011


UNIVERSE TODAY’s coverage of this story

Emily Lakdawalla’s tribute to Spirit

Images from the MER mission

More of my Mars rover poems


3 Responses

  1. Blue sunsets but still
    Spring brings no Spirit data
    Roving Mars no more

  2. Well said.

  3. exactly how I feel 😦

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