“Good Night Oppy” Tells the Human Story of Robotic Space Exploration
An Opportunity operations team member’s reaction to a new documentary about an old friend.
January 2004: I was in my sophomore year of college, studying astronomy at the University of Washington. The Sojourner rover had me hooked on the Red Planet from the day it landed in the summer of 1997. The moment that rover took its first drive onto the martian surface, my entire life became focused on the goal of working on Mars missions. Since planets are in space, I figured an astronomy degree would be the right first step.
But that winter morning, I wasn’t buried in a textbook. My attention was wholly transfixed on the television, nervously waiting to see if the Spirit rover was going to successfully land on Mars. In the time since Pathfinder, NASA’s luck hadn’t been going well…they’d lost both the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter in rapid succession. If the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers weren’t successful, it could be the death knell for Mars exploration. Thankfully, both rovers landed within days of each other, and began their planned 3-month expeditions on opposite sides of the planet.
I never would’ve guessed that four years later, I’d be working with those same rovers. And I certainly never would’ve guessed that nearly a decade after that, I would still be working on Opportunity, and even be on shift the day we lost her signal for the last time.
My initial role working with Spirit and Opportunity wasn’t on the rover team, but rather on the operations team for the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This camera monitors the weather on Mars every day to help scientists understand martian weather patterns, as well as keeping an eye out for storms that might impact rovers and landers on the surface. If a dust storm was bearing down on a rover, we had to let the rover operations team know so they could batten down the hatches — well, as much as one can on a robot tens of millions of miles away. In the very first week that I was tasked with providing weather reports for the rover team, a dust storm passed over Spirit…