Spirit and Opportunity (a Tribute)


16.5 Billion US dollars.

That’s the budget assigned to NASA, all of NASA, for 2006. With this relatively miniscule budget, some of the brightest engineers in the world are asked to scrape by on what amounts to table scraps. These engineers are tasked with performing seeming incredulous feats, when we really consider the scale of things and put their tasks into perspective.

I saw an amazing picture the other day. It was a shot of the space shuttle launching from Earth, as seen from space by our astronauts in the ISS. The plume of smoke, from space, looks oddly organic: as if a tendril from a microscopic organism, reaching out into the space around it, feeling for a safe path. It’s a visual that I don’t think I will ever forget in its uniqueness and the amazing perspective that it provides (both literally and metaphysically).

What happened to the days when our superiority in space exploration was a well of national pride? What happened to the dreamers that dreamt of men on the Moon and voyages to Mars? Nowadays, once relatively technologically backwards countries like China and India are increasingly investing more money into their space programs as it is a source of national pride and profit in some cases:

Operating on a fraction of NASA’s budget, the ISRO has turned itself into the Energizer Bunny of space programs – it just keeps launching and launching and launching. Since 1975, the agency has lofted 43 satellites into orbit, 20 of them from Indian soil. An extraordinary string of successes – 12 consecutive launches without a failure – has attracted European and Asian investors looking to capitalize on growing demand for satellite communication and reconnaissance. A few big deals could turn the ISRO into a moneymaker, boosting India’s prestige… (Scott Carney, Wired, 11/2006)

It’s amazing when you start to wonder what could be if even half the amount of money spent on the Iraq war were given to NASA. What amazing places could we visit? What incredible sights could we see? What mind-shattering breakthroughs would we find in the fields of astronomy, physics, astrophysics, and our understanding of our existence could we encounter in the deeps of space?

I put a lot of blame on the current administration; it is one that has publicly cast doubt on and often put science to the wayside. It is one that has sat by abjectly while controversy swirled, allowing false prophets to cast doubt on evolution, the separation of church and state, and the importance of the science overall.

As I was reading my December issue of Car and Driver, I came across an article on the twin mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and the amazing journey that it has made. These machines are our proxies in the exploration of our solar system, providing us with an amazing view of one of the most promising planets insofar as human habitability goes.

There is something incredibly – and perhaps this is not the best term to describe this – awesome about the idea that this little man made machine is rolling along, millions of miles from the nearest human being.


I think the public, in general, has a hard time understanding such scale and take it for granted.

Thus far in human history, about two thirds of the 36 Mars probes have been lost en route or in the creation of smoking holes on the surface… (Aaron Robinson, Car and Driver, 12/2006)

What’s perhaps more enlightening is the following quote from Mark Maimone, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission planner:

As long as NASA keeps shoveling in the case – an additional $84 million since touchdown – “The pressure is still on to make use of this national resource”… (Aaron Robinson, Car and Driver, 12/2006).

It is quite incredible when you consider how much of our research of space is done on technology older than I am (25). Our shuttles are from a bygone error using computers which are probably outclassed by most smartphones these days. Of this, Robinson points out:

Because Congress is overdue in authorizing bandwidth upgrades to the Apollo-era global array of radio dishes called the Deep Space Network, the team gets only two brief time slots per day to phone the rovers.  (Aaron Robinson, Car and Driver, 12/2006).

It’s sad to come to this realization. The space program, to me, is a vehicle for inspiration. It should be a source of national pride. A source of dreams – impossible dreams – for a new generation of scientists and engineers. A well from which we draw inspiration for our students and our people. Indeed, it’s an amazing resource, one who’s monetary benefit cannot be measured or counted.

Perhaps the coolest part, at least to me, about the Mars rovers, is their “evolution” in the form of software upgrades. The Car and Driver article also speaks of the amazing journey and longevity of the rovers. Once thought to last perhaps only 90 days or so, the rovers have now surpassed a lifetime of ten times that. Like Replicants in Blade Runner, Man has created this proxy knowing that it would only live for short period of time and here it is, fighting to survive (well, with the help of some human caretakers, of course).

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