The National Air and Space Museum yesterday opened an exhibition to celebrate the two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on opposite sides of Mars 10 years ago this month.
Standing in front of an artfully lit, full-scale model of a rover (Spirit and Opportunity are identical twins, so it could be either one), the mission’s principal investigator, Steve Squyres, spoke about the panoramic mural that surrounded him—a photo Spirit took from the summit of one of the Columbia Hills, named for the space shuttle and crew lost a year before the rovers landed. Spirit was not intended to summit Husband Hill, named after Columbia’s commander Rick Husband. (Each of the seven peaks of the range is named after a crew member.) “NASA didn’t pay for the MERs to do mountaineering,” Squyres said, recalling the 500 or so Mars days it took Spirit, which was designed to last only 90 Martian days, to roam and check out rocky outcroppings to within a meter of the top. “But we were so close, I wasn’t going to leave without making the summit.” And so Spirit became the first emissary from Earth to climb a mountain on another planet.
There was no scientific reason to reach the summit, Squyres admitted, but imagine driving a rover named Spirit within a meter of the hilltop and turning around. I wonder if any of us would have said, “Yep. High enough. Science done. Let’s go.”
The scientific reasons for space exploration are obvious in the gallery’s photo captions, but the exhibition evokes other reasons as well, the ones that motivate mountaineers and astronauts to risk their lives. Looking at the photos of this distant planet—some of them human-scale panoramas that make you feel like you’re standing on Mars—you have a slight sense of how far the rovers traveled (about 283 million miles) to reach their destination and get an even slighter sense that one day humans will follow.
After 10 years, the mission that was supposed to last three months continues. Opportunity, having rolled almost 25 miles on the surface, is still sending photos, though its successor Curiosity gets more attention today. The exhibition is open through September.