Mission Accomplished

Liz Sumner Service, Tech 1 Comment

I’m trying to make sense of the strong emotions I feel about the Mars rovers.

I don’t remember hearing that Spirit went offline in 2010, and I didn’t realize that Opportunity stopped communicating last June. Appropriately it came to rest in an area called Perseverance Valley.

I do remember watching the coverage when Spirit landed in 2004. Can you imagine what that must have felt like for the team? I loved how an unusual design succeeded after a number of expensive failures in the 90’s. And it helped that my husband, Michael, knew one of the JPL spokespeople, That made it sort of personal.

My favorite part of space stories is when scientists get creative to solve problems (like how socks and duct tape saved the astronauts on Apollo 13). Having the rovers land by bouncing on airbags. How cool is that?

The team solved a number of problems over the years. I wonder how many were anticipated given that the rovers’ missions were only supposed to last for 90 days? I find it fascinating, the idea of experimenting in a giant sandbox in Pasadena to figure out a solution then translating that into code to send 33 million miles away and then wait to see if that worked. Amazingly it takes only 15 minutes or so for the signal to travel that far.

So Opportunity was not a loyal dog. It wasn’t WALL-E or Haley Joel Osment in AI. So why have my eyes been filling with tears every time I think of it? It was a great piece of engineering and teamwork. It gave us an exciting glimpse into another world.  It vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity.”

I am anthropomorphizing these machines– thinking in terms like faithful, intrepid, doing more than was asked. Opportunity has been an inspiring symbol. I guess that’s worthy of my tears.

Comments 1

  1. I had the same reaction. Without a television or a regular radio time slot, I miss some of the news. I almost missed the silent, sad death of a remarkable machine. This was an event that landed, not on Mars, but in that region of the brain that transforms objects into “anthropomorphic” beings. Of course, I was raised in the era of “The Little Engine that Could”, a tale of determination, grit, and service. The Oppy rover certainly qualifies, having delivered valuable service for nearly fifteen years, it simply…stopped, ending its tour of duty with a heartfelt message yet.

    Perhaps we could call this the “old shoe” syndrome – how humans come to feel about things that have “been there”, ready to use, serviceable, and willing (personification again). Remember Adlai Stevenson’s shoe, the one with the hole in it? He certainly could have afforded a new pair, given that he was a respected diplomat and likely earned an enviable salary. Why did he continue to wear shoes that had a hole in the sole? Two words, comfort and loyalty. I will bet you a cappuccino that there was a small, niggling part of Stevenson’s mind that decided not to “give up” on his favorite pair of shoes.

    When I was in the Peace Corps, I lived on the $300 stipend we were given each month. That is, I didn’t have a stateside stash of funds, nor was I receiving money from my parents, given that I served in my late forties and early fifties. So, when setting up my household after training, I bought a set of plastic dishes, four plates and four small glasses, all in red. Two years later, as I packed to leave Morocco, those eight items were tucked away in bulging luggage. Another ten years passed before I finally tossed them. The same was true of my Teva sandals, footwear that carried me a thousand or more kilometers in cushy comfort. By the time my tour was over, there were two deep great-toe depressions, one on each shoe. They, too, were salvaged and carried back to the US. I never wore them again, but I saved them, …for years.

    Oppy, shoes, dishes, not to mention the soccer ball in Cast Away, humans grant a measure of sentience to nonsentient objects. I think it is a good thing given that, if we can feel for everyday stuff that has played an important role in our lives, are we not more inclined to feel for others? I hope so.

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