Despite what the Transformers movie trailer would have us believe, Spirit and Opportunity, the two Mars Rovers, are both still in business and continue to send images of the Martian surface back to NASA headquarters on a regular basis. They were launched in the summer of 2003, landed on Mars in January of the following year, and have been rolling about ever since, far exceeding expectations and projected timetables for their respective working lifespan.
I’m not one to blindly applaud the often fruitless and inane goals of our nation’s space program (quoth the The Simpsons: “You fool! Now we may never know if ants can be trained to sort tiny screws in space!”), but the fact that we regularly receive snapshots from tiny remote controlled solar-powered vehicles making their way across the surface of a frigid planet 36 million miles away is profoundly astounding to me. It’s interesting that the NASA site devoted to the Mars Rover mission, where you can find an archive of photographs and details of the history and status of the rovers, is almost entirely aimed at children. It would seem that our collective sense of cultural amazement is so utterly diminished that even NASA’s PR-hungry team of marketers realize that the only audience they have any hope of capturing is the same one that’s excited when the Museum of Natural History refurbishes their dinosaur exhibits.
Shouldn’t the continuing adventures of Spirit and Opportunity be a running front-page story every day of the week? Solar-powered robots are sending us pictures from Mars, for Christsakes! Doesn’t that count for something? Wouldn’t Walt Whitman have screamed and shouted and put feverish pen to paper had news of this import reached his ear? Shouldn’t we be stupefied at this possibility? Strucken dumb? Shouldn’t we, as my fiance Sarah aptly noted, be slightly angry that as we let our desire for oil run us into a miasma of violence, conflict and backward thinking, we’ve built solar powered machines that can putter around via remote control on airless planets and continue to function properly years after they should’ve stopped? Granted, the rovers only travel like 40 meters a day, but still.
So take a moment and marvel at the strange faculty of humans to achieve things, and then marvel further still at the even stranger faculties of the immediate reaches of our cosmic neighborhood. There’s a particularly lonesome photo that Opportunity captured of the earth as seen on a chilly Martian morning. There’s more in heaven and earth Horatio, but don’t despair.
As the old fella Walt said:
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however
long but it stretches and waits for you