Our Favorite Martians
For the scientists and engineers who drive the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Mars exploration is personal.
- By Michael Klesius
- Air & Space magazine, March 2010
(Page 2 of 5)
Spirit and Opportunity, by contrast, have endured nights of temperatures at –150 degrees Fahrenheit. Since day two, Opportunity’s arm has suffered a faulty shoulder joint. A bum wheel on Spirit has forced it torollbackwardsince2006, while more recently, another of its wheels began having problems turning. In 2005, Spirit scampered up Husband Hill—at 269 feet almost the height of the Statue of Liberty—all on borrowed time. There the rover took inspiring panoramas of the Martian landscape that no one had anticipated. The same year, Opportunity got itself marooned in soft soil at Purgatory Dune for a month and a half. A year before that, Spirit had turned its eyes to the sky and taken the only picture of Earth from the surface of another planet.
Last spring, NASA put out a press release that framed the rovers’ latest problems in unusually human terms: Spirit was “failing to wake up” from regular midday “naps” that conserve power. There were “bouts of amnesia” when Spirit didn’t record data from the day’s activities into solid-state memory. Both rovers showed “symptoms of aging.”
Laubach, who in the late 1990s worked on the Mars Pathfinder mission’s Sojourner rover, says that tiny vehicle stirred emotions too. “I definitely grew attached,” she says. “Sojourner was lower to the ground. Perhaps because of her size and limitations, I thought of her as a pet.
“Spirit and Opportunity”—she pauses—“are more human.”
Then, it happened. In late April 2009, as Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program, says, “Spirit did the equivalent of falling through the ice.”The rover inched up onto what no one realized was a brittle crust, and fell through into flour fine dirt. In the low gravity and atmospheric pressure, the bone-dry fluff gulped the wheels down with each effort to get out, while a menacing rock tickled the rover’s belly. A 12-degree tilt didn’t help matters. After Spirit’s 40 months and 4.3haltingmiles, at never more than 0.1mph, the team declared a halt and spent half a year working with a full-scale simulation rover in a sandbox at JPL.
In late November 2009, the team began sending new commands to Spirit, to no avail. By late December, the rover had hardly budged. With the winter sun dropping steadily toward its solstice on the northern horizon, the southern-hemisphere- dwelling rover needed to find a slope that would tilt its arrays north. The team fretted anew that Spirit might not survive the winter.
“I think it’s largely the time that people have devoted to this project that has really created this bond,” says Ashley Stroupe, a rover driver. “We’ve been working with these rovers, some of us now, for 10 years, and myself for five.” Stroupe did not anticipate the affection she feels. “I didn’t know that I’d have the time to get to know the rovers this well.” She says that the team is emotionally invested in the welfare of the vehicles, that they’re “proud” of them. “In many ways,” she says, “we think of these rovers kind of as our children that we sent off into the world way too early. And like most parents, when their kids go off to college, we can’t reach out to help them every time that they really need us.”
Vertesi takes it one step further. In her “‘Seeing Like a Rover’ ” paper, she claims the controllers not only have an anthropomorphic view of the rovers, but also a “technomorphic” shift in their own behavior.