Why Are So Many People So Devastated by the Loss of Mars Rover Opportunity? by Bella Poynton
Earlier this year, I read a short play called “Rocks, Algae, Water, Stars” by emerging playwright Jonathan O’Neill. O’Neill had submitted the play for consideration in the 4th Annual Lift-Off Festival of Science Fiction Plays at the Navigators Theatre Company, and the piece immediately caught the eye of literary manager, Melina Neves. As the Artistic director of this small Theatre company, I read quite a few short plays every year for our annual festival, and O’Neill’s play was one of them. Our mission as a company is to produce feminist science fiction stories, primarily written by women or female identifying people. “Rocks, Algae, Water, Stars” struck Melina and I as unique for several reasons—primarily because its main character was a female presenting anthropomorphized version of the Mars rover, Opportunity.
Opportunity has been roaming Mars since 2003. She (as I have seen her referred to in NASA Tweets) is the rover responsible for finding evidence of past water on Mars, and although she was only scheduled to function for 90 days, she explored, analyzed and sent information back to Earth for over 15 years. O’Neill’s funny and heartbreaking play follows Opportunity and Curiosity, her older, less mobile brother, while she tries desperately to find water on Mars. Within the 18-minute piece, Opportunity refuses to give up, as Curiosity does. The play ends abruptly, with the “death” of Curiosity, leaving poor Opportunity to continue her quest for water alone. We produced “Rocks, Algae, Water, Stars” as part of our 2019 festival, which ran from January 25th-27th 2019 at the Plaxall Gallery in Long Island City along with several other short science fiction pieces. The actors portraying the rovers, Hunter Menkin and Molly Carroll used nothing but their bodies, and measured, controlled, sometimes jerky physicality to convey their ontologies to the audience. I always saw big smiles or heard low chuckles from audience member at about the 5- or 6-minute mark, when they finally came to understand that the characters on stage were actually anthropomorphized versions of the Mars rovers. This took a little while because there was nothing but the text to clue the audience into what exactly they were watching—costumes included street clothes that just happened to incorporate NASA caps and sweatshirts. The lighting consisted of a red wash, and there was no set.
Yet, the play made me tear up each time I saw it. It also made me laugh aloud. When O’Neill, who lives in New York City, came to see the production, he mentioned in passing that Opportunity herself was about to stop working because of an impending dust storm on Mars, but somehow at the time, I did not digest what an emotional event this would be. Then, less than a month later, on February 13th, 2019, social media lit up with farewells and Godspeeds to the little rover. There were even several short comics and memes that went viral concerning the rover’s death. It was almost as if a beloved celebrity had left us. But many people I talked to after Opportunity’s death hadn’t even know that she was up there before the news of her demise. A friend of mine who made several Opportunity-related posts told me later that she had no idea there was any other rover up there but Curiosity, and that she wasn’t quite sure what the rovers actually did. So, what is it about this little Mars rover, or any Mars rover, that somehow elicits such a strong emotional response from us earthlings, while also capturing the spirit of Americana, exploration, and childlike wonder? Here are a few thoughts.
First, this is a picture of Opportunity:
Built for maximum agility—small enough to move around, but large enough not to be knocked over by a wayward rock or storm gust, Opportunity uses only its large solar tray to power itself with sunlight. If that tray gets covered with dust or debris, Opportunity will no longer be able to power herself (this is, they suspect, how she wound up “dying”). Her “Eyes” or camera lenses are close enough to the ground to zoom in when needed, but far enough away from the terrain to risk rocks spraying backwards and cracking the camera lens. Opportunity has six wheels, spread out on either side, of her “torso”, giving the impression of six legs. What other objects or creatures have this kind of design? With a group of human engineers as her builders, Opportunity had the best U.S. scientific minds preparing her for her journey, and her outward appearance reflects this. Oppy looks a bit like a somewhat misshapen dog, or any other cute, relatively small, four-legged creature.
Although I don’t believe this is a coincidence, the engineering team at NASA stands by their claim that the rovers were built for maximum efficiency as collectors of data. Still, their similarity to familiar fuzzy four-legged creatures is obvious, and this one of the major reasons the object tugs on our heartstrings. Our relationship with dogs, is, of course, based on emotions, caretaking, and love. We often treat our dogs as babies, recognizing their innocence, their constant desire to please us, and their propensity for unabandoned happiness. When I discussed Opportunity’s appearance with one of my college classes this semester, the students deemed her a “space puppy” as soon as I showed them a photograph. In this way, Opportunity becomes a well-beloved pet for a demographic of people who have grown up with adorable dog videos and the social media animal frenzy. Several memes treat Opportunity like a dog, specifically. For example:
Here, the grim reaper has come for Opportunity, but instead of being concerned with living longer, Oppy seems to only care about whether she was a good rover and did a good job. The reaper replies that not only was Oppy very good, but that she was the best. Our collective hearts melt. Even the act of calling the object a “rover” presents us with preconceived notions and expectations about dog-like behavior and innocence. The drawing above shows a hallow over the rover’s head with little marks on either side that to convey the interest and intensity so many dogs possess. The antenna at the back of the tray stands in for a tail.
Of course, appearances aren’t everything, and it is worth mentioning that Oppy does not have the same lifestyle as a dog. While there may be similarities in appearance, Oppy does not run around chewing shoes or digging in gardens like a dog, but instead, performs the work of a great scientist. One might say the rover has a one-track mind when it comes to collecting data for the NASA engineers, and this is, in my opinion, one of the other things that endear her to us. Opportunity had one, very specific mission, and did nothing but strive to complete this mission while she was active. In many ways, this, too, is doglike, in that dogs are always living in the present, and seem to only ever be concerned with the pursuit of fun and happiness. Similarly, the rover lives in the present, focused only on the work that lies directly ahead of her. She seeks only to please those scientists patiently waiting back at home for the pictures she sends, and for so many years, she did not disappoint.
But only discussing Opportunity’s similarities to the physical appearance and temperament of dogs is much too simple. There is far more going on with Oppy, both literally and theoretically. What about those who have not necessarily grown up with animal videos and might not care about the similarities between Oppy and our canine friends, but still feel a connection to her? For them, I would argue that an emotional response to Opportunity can also be a reaction to the nature of the work that she performs. Once, some years ago, I saw a meme on Facebook that said “Mars is the only known planet in the universe populated entirely by Robots.” A funny statement, no doubt, but also true. Of course, we have had no chance do any exploring in deep space, and thus, as far as we know, Mars is in fact the only planet of its kind. Still, the existence of the rovers on Mars—Oppy, Curiosity, and Spirit, is a testament to the indelible impulse for human beings to explore as far and wide as technology will allow them, and this impulse for exploration is perhaps the most important through-line connecting Opportunity to all of us here on earth.
Currently, I am teaching a course at the University at Buffalo entitled, “Performing America” in which we explore different theatrical plays, cultural ideas, and pieces of literary criticism that interrogate and investigate how the notion of “America” or “The American Dream” can be performed both in theatre and everyday life. Last week, I brought up Opportunity to the class, and the student immediately commented on the rover’s cute, doglike appearance. Then, I asked them to delve deeper—How does Opportunity perform America? One student said, “learning about the Mars rovers was a part of my childhood,” while another added, “The space race between the U.S. and Russia is something I remember learning about.” Both are interesting answers, and, I think, not unrelated. These rovers have definitely been a part of any geeky American kid’s childhood in the same way science fiction movies or astronomy picture books have been. Dreams of going to NASA space camp were numerous at my house, and had my parents had the money for such a trip, I might have become a scientist instead of a writer. Similarly, learning about the space race of the 1950s and 60s also allows people to better understand a specific part of our country’s history—a different time in which U.S. cultural interests deemed space exploration, teamwork, and technological advancements as important to the country’s integrity and moral fiber. This was a time in which our ability to perform such amazing feats of science were looked at as a source of pride—not necessarily for other countries to marvel at—but mostly, for ourselves. Of course, one may feel a swell of pride at the idea that the U.S. was the first to land on the moon, but perhaps more important is the notion of that such a project was ever achieved in the first place—that people from all over the U.S. came together to make such an incredible journey happen. Despite any political entanglements, it still seems like quite an accomplishment, and for any young child with dreams of becoming a scientist or an astronaut, such a historical event is surely life-changing.
In a way, I see the Mars rovers, and Opportunity specifically, as a kind of remnant of this moment in U.S. history in which exploration, technological advancement, and the beautiful mystery of exploring the cosmos presented a utopic view of the U.S. as leaders in cultural progress in terms of science and technology. This, of course, is no longer true. Capitalist interests and a much less stable economy have changed our priorities as a nation, and rightly so. Still, space travel, I believe, is very much an American idea—an American dream. It is also, surely, a Russian dream, a Chinese dream—an Indian or Japanese dream; it is a dream for any individual who believes that exploration, innovation, teamwork and diversity can enrich our souls, make us more compassionate, and perhaps, even bring us closer to understanding our true purpose in the universe. Space travel is the dream of any child, or any person, really, who has looked up into the stars and wished to travel to them—anyone who has watched a film about traveling to another planet and thought “I could do that! And I would be good at it!” In a way, space travel is just as much an abstract notion eliciting emotions about hard work, bravery, and the spirit of adventure, as it is about literal programming or understanding advanced physics. I think perhaps, many of us have forgotten this. Perhaps we have forgotten because we know, ultimately, that none of us will ever leave this planet. All but a tiny handful of us will live and die here on earth, and those of us who are chosen to go to Mars (or another planet) may not even be born yet. And yet, despite the fact that none of us will likely ever explore the surface of other planets, or reach out to the stars, there is still Opportunity, up there on Mars, all alone, roving from crater to crater, collecting her data, and sending it home. She is, in a way, living the dream of courage and exploration for so many people, young and old alike, who love the idea of space travel and all the wondrous adventures it implies. Opportunity is not only performing America but performing as all of us—as humanity itself. The little rover performs the act of hard work and unending inquisitiveness for each and everyone one of us, putting into practice the collective human yearning for exploration and adventure that our feeble non-metal bodies could never tolerate in practice. And so, as a final goodbye, I would like to say thank you, Opportunity, for your incredible services to the advancement of human curiosity, and for helping everyone here on earth get just a little closer to the stars.