When I saw the announcement that NASA ended the Opportunity rover mission, I gasped a bit. But I don’t know why. I suppose we should have all seen this coming. Who hasn’t been in a relationship that deteriorates so quietly that you hardly notice when things are beyond saving? It’s not like it was anyone’s fault. Not NASA. Not Opportunity. Relationships like these fall apart in the middle, and then, like a shooting star, the spark burns out as quickly as it started. Perhaps we should start at the beginning.
Opportunity was one of a pair of rovers deployed to Mars to explore the planet in the mid-2000s. Initially, the rover was only expected to stay alive for 90 Martian days (or sols, around 40 minutes longer than an Earth day) and travel roughly 1,100 yards. Fifteen years later, even with its ultimate demise, Opportunity was an extremely successful space venture.
But isn’t that what makes saying goodbye to Opportunity that much tougher? Especially around Valentine’s Day. Like our rover, every relationship starts with a bit of blind hope: Maybe we’re different. Maybe we’re the exception. So Opportunity was launched alongside its rover twin, Spirit. But Spirit is a nobody. A ship in the night. After five miles of exploration, Spirit came home, but not Opportunity. Opportunity was intrepid.
Opportunity is like your first long-term relationship: It’s the idea of having something worth believing in—something worth saving a piece of your heart for, knowing good and well that if it leaves, it will take that piece with it. But it’s worth the risk, because what is life if not an amalgamation of the risks that make us feel alive? So we invested in Opportunity as it roved across Mars, taking over 200,000 pictures and discovering hematite. Hematite! Opportunity taught us more about Mars than we’d ever learned in any rover-space program relationship before.
Like most relationships though, there are lulls. Ruts, if you will. You stop communicating. You forget to say “I love you,” or “thank you for the scientific findings you’ve provided.” The discovery of a potential Mars lake feels—I don’t know—uninspired. And then one day, you forget why you cared about going to Mars at all. All the while, your partner has lost control of her front wheels. Her 256-megabyte flash memory becomes useless. She’s not the same rover you started with, but then again, you’re not the same Mars-obsessed space cadet, either.
You’ve abandoned your partner, and you’re stuck asking: what should come next? You play the same speech out in your mind, I don’t think I want to do this anymore. I don’t think I want to do us anymore. But before you can pull the plug on this thing that once occupied so much of your time, you hear the news. She’s gone.
Somehow in the past year, Opportunity was lost in a planet-wide dust storm that covered it up entirely. And though NASA has spent the last year sending messages its way, Opportunity couldn’t respond. After months of attempts and over 1,000 signals deployed, NASA called it. This relationship we’d built with Opportunity is over.
As I stare out of my office window, I’m reminded of all the times I stopped communicating. How maybe there have been times I’ve forgotten to say “I love you,” when it should have been top of mind. All these relationships—human and human, human and machine, machine and machine (WALL-E is important)—are only as strong as the work we put into them. So I pull my cardigan tighter and I send a quiet thank you up to the sky. Thank you Opportunity for the, uh, opportunity. And I turn my attention back here, on Earth, to remember to always be thankful for the things that matter while I still have them.