There will not be a visitation for the 15 year-old Mars rover named Opportunity, and no funeral, but the obituary is magnificent. A NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) medical examiner has determined that Opportunity is most sincerely dead.
In January of 2004 scientists from NASA guided a rocket with the rover Opportunity as its only passenger through the darkness to the planet Mars, where it landed safely and began sending back data.
Scientists hoped the rover would last a few months, never dreaming that for the next 15 years Opportunity would tirelessly and faithfully explore the Martian surface, photographing the landscape, making huge discoveries, like the fact that once upon a time there was water on Mars. This was all accomplished because the rover had lithium ion batteries hooked up to solar panels, cutting edge technology 15 years ago, common now.
Then in June of 2018 a wicked dust storm on Mars’ surface covered Opportunity and it sent out these final Shakespearean words, “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” Oh. My. Gosh. This is as good as it gets. If I’m allowed a deathbed scene I plan to steal those words, even if no one else is around because Opportunity’s words will surely echo far in to the universe, maybe all the way to Mars. In eight short words a little machine rolling slowly around Mars said almost everything there is to say about dying.
For the next eight months NASA continued sending messages to Opportunity, hoping it was still alive, often in the form of songs, which is pretty interesting, the notion that a machine might react to music in the same way we do. But, alas, there continued to be no response and finally, on February 12th NASA sent one final song, a recording of Billie Holiday singing “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
Ms. Holiday sang, “I’ll find you in the morning sun, and when the night is new, I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.” If you can’t respond to the sweet sadness of Billie Holiday you are surely dead. And so it was that the good folks at NASA declared Opportunity officially deceased on February 13th, more than 15 years after it landed in a place on Mars called Eagle Crater.
Shed no tears for a man-made machine named Opportunity, a beautiful, extraordinary piece of work that managed to carry on long past its life expectancy, long beyond its ‘best purchased by’ date. We should all be so lucky. It’s fine to be sentimental about living things, and yet …
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I’m not sure what the death of Opportunity can teach us beyond reminding us of the fact that everything eventually dies: bodies, dreams, pets, governments, everything. Trust me on this; it’s not fake news.
Out here winter lies long and hard and pretty much everything looks dead though we know that most of what we see will revive in the spring, a time of year that feels many months distant. Schools have been trying to figure out how to make up ‘snow days’ in the face of storms that seem to sweep through here every few days, storms much like dust storms on Mars, overwhelming, frightening, and biblical.
• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.