“My battery is low, and it’s getting dark.”
This was the final message from the Opportunity Mars rover, caught in a massive Martian dust storm. Eight months later, NASA has declared the rover officially ‘deceased.’ You probably already know this – the internet has kind of been exploding with it ever since it happened. I was surprised how hard it hit me. It’s not like Opportunity was a living thing – it wasn’t a human or an animal or a plant. It wasn’t even an artificial intelligence. It was a robot. It took me some time to figure out why exactly this hit me so hard.
But because Opportunity was everything great about humanity, wrapped up in a cool robot and sent to another world.
Opportunity was, at the time it was built, a triumph of human science. Loaded with the most advanced technology that we could give it – at least, the most advanced technology that was light enough to be launched into orbit and then survive on Martial soil – Opportunity was then loaded onto a stack of carefully timed explosives and sent careening out of Earth’s orbit, all the way to our nearest cosmic neighbor that isn’t a blasted hellscape.
We took the pinnacle of our science, and we sent it to another worlds to find cool rocks.
And Opportunity did find cool rocks. It found the first extraterrestrial meteor – the first ever observed rock on another world that did not originate on that world. It found ‘blueberries,’ a particular rock formation that is only possible with liquid water, proving the red world once had some liquid blue. It found dust – so much dust, dust that would eventually spell its doom – and from it we learned so much about how weather works on that distant world.
Opportunity was human wonder. It was our desire to learn more about the cosmos, learn more about this vast space we inhabit, not from a distance, but up close and personal. And it did get up close and personal. Its treads touched a world no human has set foot on, a world where – for all we can actually prove – the only movement ever has been by Opportunity and its sibling rovers.
Opportunity was humanity’s tenacity. It’s original mission length was 90 days. Three months. We sent it up there to survive for the duration of a summer break, gather whatever cool stuff it could from the rocks, and send it back.
It endured for almost 15 years.
It was the little rover that could. It kept astonishing NASA that it was still responding. It was sent to a lifeless, barren world to study rocks, and it did so well that it endured fifty-five times its expected lifespan. It kept chirping back “I’m here! What science do you want me to do next?” and we kept giving it science, and it did the science, it did it so well it astonished the people who built it.
Finally, and most importantly as we all mourn a robot on a world humans can only look up at in wonder, Opportunity was humanity’s ability to love. In realistic terms, an argument could be made that Opportunity was a 400 million dollar roomba, a robot with the primary purpose of picking up dust and rocks. It wasn’t intelligent, not in the way we think of it. It had 128 MB of RAM, meaning it’s very likely the phone you’re reading on is more powerful in terms of computing ability that Opportunity was.
Yet we’re mourning its passing.
Because it doesn’t matter how smart the robot was. It doesn’t matter if it could think or talk or love us back. It matters that Opportunity represented the best of us. We poured our science and wonder and hopes and dreams and tenacity into a robot and threw it at Mars to find rocks, and that robot did a damn fine job.
I hope when humanity reaches mars, we find Opportunity. I hope we build a monument to it, and on that monument – on the first ever tombstone for a robot – here’s what I hope we write.