When she landed on Mars in 2004, Opportunity and her sister rover Spirit were planned to explore for 90 days or so.
Spirit lasted 7 years. Her sister Opportunity’s mission was just pronounced complete after 15. That’s 60 times her designed life. And during their lives these two little juggernauts helped transform our knowledge of the Red Planet. Together, their discoveries moved the needle for the existence of Martian water from theory to almost certainty in it’s past, and with it the chance that life had and still may exist there into the realm of the possible.
Almost more importantly, the level of success and sheer engineering excellence that these little robots demonstrated, indeed the level of excellence and inspiration of almost all of the missions sent to Mars by JPL and NASA have set a standard that is literally the highest in the Solar System.
These little rovers have driven beyond the edge of what should have been their capability on Mars, continuing to perform far, far beyond their design specifications, sending signals filled with data, and signaling our determination to fulfill some of the highest drives of human existence, the need to learn, to explore, and to achieve the unachievable – and then some.
Contrasted with the low mediocrity of the other news flowing across our screens, the work of our space explorers is always uplifting, as it brings the light of the possible to our days – even when tinged with the sadness of the end of such an incredible mission as Opportunity’s. From concept to realization, from launch to landing, from switching on to finally shutting down, Opportunity and her sisters spreading out from the Earth are true examples of our reach exceeding our grasp.
These little extensions of the hand of humanity helped us not just touch an unknown world, but also allow us to touch what is good in ourselves. And as symbols and inspirers of possibility, such missions remind us with each new reported discovery or incredible new finding, each day or hour of operation that blows past expectations – that there is greatness to be found in this band of curious apes with tools and its technological toys.
A few kilos of metal and wire, conceived by dreamers and built and powered by the entire careers of doers who dared to do something about their dreams, these are the best machines of humanity. They set the standard. They set the bar. And it is literally a very, very high bar indeed.
Just as with mediocrity, excellence and vision breed themselves. And missions like those we send to Mars and throughout the Solar System are breeding a new generation that will in short order produce some who will go to those places themselves, even as others they inspire produce amazing new tech that transforms our lives her on Earth.
Opportunity and her sisters give us the opportunity to hope. Her mission is done for now. But her job is not.
Sitting silently in the red dusk as the dusty winds of Mars swirl around her, waiting for the moment her human creators arrive to dust her off and turn her back on with the flip of a switch, the little robot that could calls to a new generation to come and find her, and they will.
Rick Tumlinson is a writer, speaker and one of the creators of the space revolution that has the goal of settling the Solar System. He recently started SpaceFund, the world’s first tokenized venture capital fund for space. You can follow him @RocketRick.