And Then There Was One

By Mike Deliman

Deliman_lg NASA concludes attempts to contact Mars Rover 'Spirit'

Last night the news of Spirit's mission coming to a close hit my mailbox.

For me, her journey started about eleven years ago.  A call from JPL came to my office phone, it was Glenn.  "Mike, we're putting the team back together, we're going back to Mars."

Those words were like music to my ears.  At the time, when completing the Mars Pathfinder project the thought occurred…"this, then, is the pinnacle of my career, the point  where I can mark as the top of my achievements."  This call changed all of that. There were other projects along the way, Gravity-Probe B and others, but Pathfinder had been fantastic!

Over 3 long years we worked as a team, cogs in a bigger machine making something incredible.  We all put in long hours, working all day on our mission, dreaming at night of what we were working on (it's a human thing).  They began to take on personalities of their own, MER-A being feisty as the "older twin", MER-B cooperating and living the charmed life of the youngest child.  Then came the competition where the children gave our babies their names – Spirit and  Opportunity.  These seemed to be very fitting of our offspring, Spirit surely was full of fitfulness, where as Opportunity was always moving forward.

The only point where Oppy was contentious was Launch Day.  Though she herself was ready, her rocket kept having one problem or another.  We assembled several times at Jetty Point to watch her ride her candle into the cosmos, alas my 2 weeks were up, I had to leave, and Oppy was still on the pad.

It was decided in order to make the launch window we would "borrow" Spitzer's Delta rocket.  That gave us the go-power to get to Mars on time.  And we did.

Yes, "we"…after living with the rovers in mind day and night for so long, the team began to identify with our robots, their efforts were ours, a shared thing. Like the pride you feel watching your child graduate, first from grade school, then high school.  It was like we were sending them off to college.  Imagine sending your 3-year-olds off to Cal Tech or MIT.

Seven months later came the graduation, in the "6 minutes of Terror" landing. They were now on Mars, where they would unfold their wings (solar panels) and begin their flight into their professional lives.

Crawling across the alien world they were on, Spirit again showed her fitfulness on SOL18, and later, as she suffered various maladies and growth-pains.  Oppy on the other hand, landed in a bowl full of science, and fulfilled the  Mission Goals all at once.  Layered rocks and "blueberries" were found within meters of her landing spot, proof that Mars had once had oceans, had once been very much earth-like in the early years.

It's been 7 years now, into their 3-month mission.  They've completed their mission 28-times-over.  Both rovers found proof of the earth-like Mars, in rocks, salts and formations.  Opportunity kept finding new places to explore, new wonderful things to share with us.  Spirit did as well, but suffered  arthritis (lost a wheel) and alzheimers (forgetting things writting to long-term storage).

Opportunity is currently rolling her way towards another distant crater, sporting improved software that can find interesting rocks for us to inspect, and image-identifying code that finds dust-devils in her landscape pictures. These small bits of improved software increase her science return.

With today's annoucement, Opportunity rides alone now.  Spirit has parked on a bad spot, we couldn't give her the extra energy she needed to winter over.

Spirit sleeps now forever in her spot on the Red Planet.