Growing Up With the Mars Rovers
I am not supposed to be here, working with the Mars Exploration Rovers. There wasn’t supposed to be a Mars Rover here for me to work on. I arrived at JPL less than a month before Spirit’s landing in January 2004. Long before I earned the privilege of working on such a project, the three-month mission (six if we were lucky) would be completed. Robots are intricate machines, and Mars is a harsh place. Neither Spirit nor Opportunity should be here - and, as a result, neither should I be here to talk about them. Five years on Mars - inconceivable! But somehow, Spirit, Opportunity and I are celebrating our fifth anniversaries within a few weeks of each other. We’ve grown up together, in a way.
I have been working with the rovers for almost four and a half of their five years. I’ve discovered that Spirit and Opportunity are more than just a couple of robots or tools - they are a grand vision, a shared dream. A dream so powerful and so compelling that even those who come late to it, as I did, are fully invested. I look around at the room as I write this and I see people who have been here from the beginning (or even before the beginning from Pathfinder days in 1997) and I see the newest generations - those I have helped to train and with whom I have shared the vision. This dream is large enough for all of us.
Most engineers build a product and give it to the user. But those of us working on the Mars program are lucky enough to continue working with the scientists and get a real sense of the great purpose of what we do. We are an integral part of contributing to our understanding of the universe around us. I often step back and realize how truly fortunate I am, working on this amazing project with these remarkable, talented people.
This team of people is a family, and the rovers are our children. And, like parents of adult children who have moved away, we worry, we try to keep them safe, we try to teach them what we know and we give them guidance. Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t. But together, we’ve made amazing discoveries. Once Mars was a warmer place, a wetter place, a more Earthlike place - something we could only infer indirectly before. And it’s still a beautiful place with strangely colored sunsets that remind us we’re looking at another world.
Now, experience has matured us. And aged us. We have faced a lot of challenges. Racing to find places to survive harsh Martian winters, climbing mountains and crater walls, riding out dust storms, and working around arthritic body parts (broken wheels and failing arm joints). There have been sleepless nights and new gray hairs. But as Spirit and Opportunity begin long journeys to new places, we remember our starry-eyed youth and still nothing seems entirely out of reach. Five years on Mars? That’s just the beginning.