Tribute to Opportunity by John Grigoli

grigoli
Credit: Raphael Nogueira

“5…4…3…2…1…ignition…we have lift off!”

We let out a collective sigh of relief, which had been building up since last year. The work paid off. Finally, after the countless sleepless nights, literally working on rocket science, we did it. We felt like a part of something bigger than ourselves. The crew and I at Jet Propulsion Lab were like a bunch of proud parents looking at a time lapse of children growing up.

***

You should have seen their faces when I finally lifted off.  In the last few months, they had dedicated their lives to my mission. You can probably imagine how excited they were. That was before they knew how the mission would even turn out.

Before I get too caught up, let me start at the beginning. I guess the real beginning, for me, was the moment just before I escaped from Earth’s gravity.

Nervous wasn’t the word, hysterical, maybe. I had the right to be.  I was about to be shot off the face of the Earth to go to some strange place humans were too scared to go themselves. So, yes, I was a little nervous. At least I wasn’t alone for the ride. My counterpart’s name was Spirit.

I wasn’t the most grateful to humans at the time, for having been launched from all I had ever known at 17,640 miles per hour, to a desolate rock to examine the ground for the rest of my existence, and all.

The name Mars means god of war. I expected a much more interesting planet.   As far as I knew, the only thing to look forward to was red dust.

The launch was spectacular.   I wouldn’t want to experience it again, but nonetheless breath taking, or maybe, battery draining, in this case. My understandably apprehensive mood at the time didn’t affect the appreciation I had for the view, once I left the atmosphere.   The only word that humans have remotely capable of describing it was beautiful. There was something about seeing the stars, unhindered by the Earth’s interfering atmosphere that just tingled my light sensors. Once you see how small the Earth is in contrast to anything else, it makes you question every problem you ever had.

It was going to be a long ride, so I sat tight, and got comfortable. I tried making small talk with my companion, Spirit. “So… the weather’s nice isn’t it?”

“Weather does not exist in space.”

“Well, I know, but I was just trying to start a conversa-”

Most of our discussions ended like that.

If I were to describe Spirit I would say dull, and I’m not just talking about the chromium he’s made of. It’s nothing personal, but that’s the problem.  He had no personality.

As that little red speck in the sky grew bigger, I experienced nothing but the cold stillness that occupies all of space. The months drew on, and eventually the closest living being to me was 33.9 million miles away. I never felt so part of something, yet so far.

The more detail I could make out of Mars, the more electrified my attitude became. Initially I wasn’t too eager about my mission.  I guess I just had the jitters, but I soon realized the gravity of the assignment.  We expected to travel about a mile in total, once we landed.  The crew predicted that we only had about 90 days to gather the information they anticipated. Then, once they render us inoperative, communications will shut down. After that, only our cold frames will be left on the surface of that lonely planet.

When we finally glided into Mars’ orbit, the landing sequence commenced.  The parachute and air bags deployed, and we began our descent onto Mars. As soon as we touched down, we began to send our observations to Earth, mostly about the geology and atmosphere.  Our time was spent rolling along, collecting data, and capturing an occasional photo.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw the sun sink below a different horizon.

One of the challenges that faced us was the dust storms. We usually just hunkered down and saved our battery when these occurred. We always watched on anxiously, because there was a chance that the dust could cover the solar panels, in which case we would bite the dust. This was one of the reasons we weren’t expected to last very long, but seasonal winds blew our solar panels clean.

Perhaps more treacherous then a dust storm, are the sand pits.  Once you get your wheels caught in one, the outcome looks pretty dim.  We learned to avoid these pretty well, that is, until about sol 18, when Spirit gave me a scare that almost made my circuits stop.  I was rolling along, and I came to notice that he was not following as he usually did.  Scanning the rocky plane, I found it bare of the one friend I had.  I was terrified when I realized the sheer loneliness that I might have to face.  Picking a direction, I started the search.  I saw a ridge we passed by earlier, and decided to look.  Then I saw Spirit, as still as all the stones around him.  I couldn’t bare to look at him, knowing I would have to move on soon.  I turned to leave.

“Oh, so your just gonna leave me here?”

“I thought-”

“I know what you thought.  Never mind that, are you gonna help me out of here?”

As I helped Spirit out of the sand pit, I was relieved to know that I wouldn’t have to endure the lonesomeness, at least, for now.

***

Spirit and I were a good team, despite our differences. It was both of us that discovered that in the past, there was water on Mars. We were the only inhabitants of this entire planet. He was all I had left; he was the only thing resembling something from my past, and the only thing that looked different then all these darn rocks. He was like a brother to me. We had been together since our manufacturing, and it was together that we made it well past our expected expiration date. Spirit was a good machine; he always did the right things, and had good intentions. Unfortunately he experienced some difficulties traversing the demanding Martian landscape, he ceased operation on what would be March 22, 2010, on Earth.

My work goes on alone, for 8 years now.

***

Sol 18209

As I’m logging my story, a dust storm approaches. It looks like a harsh one. I had better send an update to Earth.

***

June 10, 2018

“Sir, Opportunity’s location hasn’t changed for quite some time now.”

“That’s not too unusual, is it? Just keep the communications up.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What did his last message say?”

“‘My battery is low, and it’s getting dark.’”

***

Epilogue:

February 12, 2019

After 1000 attempts to contact the rover, NASA officially announced the completion of Opportunity’s mission. Opportunity traveled more than the distance of a marathon while on Mars. His mission was expected to last 90 sols, or Martian days. (Slightly longer then an Earth day) It ended up lasting approximately 15 years, which is more than 50 times what NASA expected. It was against odds that the rovers would even get to Mars, due to an unexpectedly short deadline. Thanks to Spirit and Opportunity, we now know that liquid water did exist on Mars in the past, which now enables us to ask more complex questions about Mars’ environment.

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