This week it was official; the Mars rover “Opportunity”, the second of two solar-powered rovers that first landed on Mars in early 2004, was declared dead. Engineers at NASA/JPL-Caltech lost contact after a particularly nasty Martian dust storm last year, and contact never resumed. After 15 years on a hostile alien planet, the first rover “Spirit” was declared dead in 2012. Both survived well past their planned 90-day lifespans…a considerable feat, considering even the most optimistic projections at the time guesstimated they’d last, maybe, three years at best.
In a prior post, I wrote about my personal Martian Chronicles…
In it, I wrote about my lifelong fascination with the red planet Mars; a cold, near-vacuum desert with a rusty, dusty surface and two frozen polar caps. This fascination of mine began around the age of 9, in the summer of 1976, when I saw the first images from the surface of Mars from the twin Viking landers. I was spellbound.
Those photos made it clear to me that the planet Mars was a real place, and not some styrofoam rock-filled alien planet set from “Star Trek.”
1976 was also, coincidentally, the year I saw the 1964 movie “Robinson Crusoe On Mars” on late night television (a far better movie than the title alludes; the forerunner to 2015’s “The Martian”).
Dreamland, aka Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech Pasadena, December 2002.
The ‘death of Opportunity is the end of an era; an era which began, for me, in December of 2002…on my birthday, no less. My wife’s cousin, a longtime engineer for Caltech, took my wife, sister and I on a ‘birthday tour’ of Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a near-mythic place I’d read about and had seen on Carl Sagan’s COSMOS. For me it was dreamland; for my wife’s cousin, it was work. JPL was a place only about an hour west of the city I grew up in, but it might as well have been on…well, Mars.
Short version: It was like a UFO-fanatic going on a guided tour of Area 51.
It was during this tour that I actually got to see the twin Mars rovers (inside of their solar-panel cocoons), in JPL’s “Clean Room” (a large sterile chamber used to prepare/test spacecraft), getting ready for their long voyage to Mars.
Later on, we got to see the Spaceflight Operations center of JPL, though we couldn’t take photos at the time (this was only a year after 9/11 and security precautions were understandably tight, so…).
We also got to see the Spaceflight Museum, and the “blue room,” where JPL usually holds its press conferences.
It was in that room that we got to see the full-size engineering mockup of another longtime space explorer, the Voyager spacecraft. The full-size Voyager was somewhat larger than I imagined (years of watching the 3/4 scale version of “V’ger” in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” had tweaked my perception of its true size). Thanks again to my wife’s terrific cousin Bob, who gave me the single greatest birthday of my life!
January 2004, Pasadena Civic Center.
A little over a year later, in January of 2004, the twin rovers were due to land on Mars. I was (and still am) a member of The Planetary Society (http://www.planetary.org), a non-profit space exploration/education group founded by the late Dr. Carl Sagan, Dr. Bruce Murray and Dr. Louis Friedman.
As a result of my membership, I received notification of a ‘Planetfest’ event to commemorate the landing, which was to be held in Pasadena (not too far from Caltech). It was called “Wild About Mars,” and was celebrating both the landing of the Spirit rover as well as the Stardust mission flyby of Comet Wild-2 (pronounced ‘vilt’, after Swiss astronomer Paul Wild, but no matter; “Wild” makes for a catchier pun).
The event took place from January 4th through 5th. Headliners of the event included my favorite author of all time Ray Bradbury (whom I met that very night for the first of two times), actor Robert Picardo (“Star Trek: Voyager”), actor John Rhys-Davies (“Lord of the Rings,” “Indiana Jones” trilogy) and many others.
There were panels talking about the future of both manned and unmanned spaceflight (those were slightly more optimistic times), all-new pics from comet Wild-2 (we were among the first in the world to see them that night), and finally…a nail-biting countdown to the landing of the Spirit rover.
By the end of the evening, the rover made it to Mars, and the crowd was jubilant. That was a night (weekend) I’ll never forget. It was Woodstock for space geeks. Everyone in attendance, actors, authors, scientists, or just average-Joe space enthusiasts like myself, were there for a common cause… our unabashed love of, and curiosity (forgive the sincere pun) for, all-things outer space.
I went alone that first night, but dragged my wife to the second day’s events, where we attended talks from Bill Nye (“The Science Guy” and current CEO of The Planetary Society, as well as host of “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix) and scientist/author Dr. Jim Bell (“Postcards From Mars”; a must-own coffee table book of the Spirit-Opportunity missions). My wife also got her “Lord of the Rings” DVD box set autographed by John Rhys-Davies, who is a true gentleman.
Over the course of those two days, I’d met Bradbury, Rhys-Davies, Picardo, Nye, and so many others. The second day was a lot of fun, yes, but that first night for the landing was… well, a happening. It was magical.
Pasadena Civic Center, October 9th, 2006.
A couple of years later, my wife and I attended another Planetary Society event in October of 2006 called “Humans and Robots: A Space Exploration Team” which would explore the role of humans and machines working together for space travel, as well as give updates on the Spirit and Opportunity missions.
The rover Opportunity, by this time, had reached the edge of Endurance Crater, and the assembled crowd saw spectacular, high-definition slideshow views of rocks at the crater’s edge…peering down into a dusty abyss.
There were audible gasps of genuine awe when some of those images appeared on the screen. Somehow, in that small, darkened auditorium, the images seemed especially vivid and real.
Also on hand that night was Dr. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to walk on the lunar surface in the historic Apollo 11 mission (nearly 50 years ago). I would have another better chance to talk with Aldrin a few years later in 2009, but this was the first time I ever saw him in person. ‘Humbling’ doesn’t begin to cover it…
Dr. Aldrin discussed his idea for a Mars ‘cycler’ which would essentially loop in a continuous transfer orbit between Mars and Earth, thus seriously reducing Mission costs by eliminating the need for a new orbital transfer vehicle with every mission. This was an idea later popularized by the Hermes spacecraft in author Andy Weir’s 2011 novel “The Martian”, which led to the aforementioned 2015 Ridley Scott film adaptation.
More Mars Machines.
Over the years I’ve kept tabs on the twin rovers in the news, in my Planetary Society emails/newsletters, and by checking the internet on their daily progress. When the Spirit mission was officially called in 2012, I was saddened but comforted that there were still two active rovers on Mars; Opportunity and the much bigger, nuclear-powered “Mars SUV” known as “Curiosity”, which landed with equal fanfare in August of 2012 (another Planetfest Event):
Now, it’s 2019 and the twin-solar powered rovers, after 15 long years in the cold, near-vacuum deserts of Mars, are dead. Their mission was one of the most successful in the history of unmanned (or manned) space exploration. Yes, there is still Curiosity, as well as the recent Insight lander (which is gathering all-new seismic data as I write this).
There is also Insight’s long-dead twin, the Phoenix lander of 2008 (the first to see actual water-ice at the surface). We will soon have another nuclear-powered Curiosity-type rover landing on Mars sometime in early 2021 (a possible prelude to a future sample return mission).
All of these new missions are exciting in their own ways, and each builds upon the other. Whether or not they lead to a human mission on Mars is another matter. Personally, I’d always dreamed I’d see human bootprints on Martian soil before I shuffle off this mortal coil, but it’s always “20 years away.” It’s been 20 years away since I was a little kid (I’m 52 now). Well, to hell with waiting. These days, I prefer to get my Mars fixes through the telepresence of a fleet of unmanned rover, lander and orbiter spacecraft. They’ve been getting the job done since the Mariner 4 Mars flyby of 1965, and they are a lot more durable than we fragile, food-oxygen dependent humans as well. I can explore Mars remotely any time I wish just by opening my desktop, laptop or even my iPhone.
It’s on that note that I prefer to celebrate our rugged, intrepid machines exploring Mars, and not mourn their inevitable demises. I thank the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, as well as all of those who made them possible, for allowing me to virtually explore an alien world (with my morning coffee) just by opening my email.
Here’s to the machines of Mars yet to come…