On Wednesday of this week on the day before Valentine’s Day and after months of failed attempts to connect with the machine, NASA announced the end of its Opportunity rover program. Opportunity, or Oppy as the rover had come to be known, was a stunning and surprising scientific achievement. Launched in 2003 it was expected to last no more than ninety days on the hostile surface of Mars, and yet through some alchemy of ingenuity and a touch of heart Oppy persevered in its mission for fifteen long years.
Oppy had last contacted NASA in June of this year but a severe dust storm had apparently damaged its ability to recharge using solar power since that time. The hope on Earth was that when severe storms had cleared it would manage to revive itself out of hibernation, perhaps with an expected windy period clearing sand from its solar panels, but the hopes proved for naught. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory attempted to contact Oppy more than a thousand times.
In June its final message sent back to Earth was stark: “my battery is low and it's getting dark.”
“We have made every reasonable engineering effort to try to recover Opportunity and have determined that the likelihood of receiving a signal is far too low to continue recovery efforts," said John Callas, manager of the Mars Exploration Rover project at JPL.
"It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. "And when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration."
On Wednesday President Obama was among the many to pay tribute to the lovable rover.
“Don’t be sad it’s over, be proud it taught us so much,” he tweeted. “Congrats to all the men and women of @NASA on a @MarsRovers mission that beat all expectations, inspired a new generation of Americans, and demands we keep investing in science that pushes the boundaries of human knowledge.”
A Tumblr user did a good job explaining why so many of us felt an attachment to the lonely robot.
That song came in NASA’s final attempt to revive Oppy in a transmission of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” by Billie Holiday. “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces,” it goes.
Anthropomorphizing objects like the rover is natural. It’s very easy to see why so many people imbued a soul and a humanity into Opportunity, seemingly alone out there in the cosmos, forcing itself to go on despite terrible odds. What is more lifelike than that?
We’ve long done a similar sort of thing when it comes to ships here on Earth. Seafaring vessels are referred to as “she” and are attributed all manner of humanistic foibles and quirks.
We also tend to bless ships when they’re launched, particularly in the military, where chaplains might say a benediction before a maiden voyage. All of which got me to thinking: I wonder if they did any sort of blessing for Oppy before its launch? Does NASA have chaplains who tend to the spiritual prospects of its own ships?
I tried to contact NASA at the end of the week reaching out to a number of different offices but getting a response wasn’t easy.
“I was curious whether or not NASA employs chaplains as in branches of the military,” I wrote in a few emails. “Also curious to know whether or not there are typically any blessings or any similar ceremonies for NASA launches as there might be with the launch of a boat. Specifically interested in knowing if there was any such blessing for Opportunity?”
For a couple days I didn’t hear back. What were they trying to cover up I wondered?
Then on Saturday night I got a call. I almost didn’t answer because I was out and it was a blocked number. A stern man on the end of the line identified himself as a spokesperson from the Jet Propulsion Labs although I had to ask him who he was again because the fucking kid on the bike next to me at the gym was playing cartoons on his phone without headphones on.
He said he was unaware of any chaplains employed by NASA, and furthermore said the JPL was not aware of any blessings done for Oppy or for any other NASA launch for that matter. We’d been so busy imposing a human soul on the rover we never stopped to think about the implications of what we’d done.
Over the course of its mission Oppy had traveled a staggering 45 kilometers to where it found its final resting spot in Perseverance Valley and now it makes one final journey across Charon’s infernal moat.