Gathered in “The Darkroom” above Mission Operations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, members of the Opportunity team somberly awaited news of what was to become of our dear rover.
Steve Squyres, Opportunity’s principal investigator, came up the darkened stairway. He shook everyone’s hand, then stood looking out over the Mission Ops floor from our glass-encased viewpoint. “It’s been a hell of a ride,” he said.
It was a ride that included 5,111 martian days (“sols”) of operations and more than 45 kilometers of terrain. There were “blueberries,” ancient watery environments, and a couple dozen meteorites discovered. Oppy had one massive global dust storm under her belt, but would the rover survive a second? Perhaps not.
The Darkroom filled with attendees uttering names like a roll call as they came up the stairs: “There’s Larry!” “Oh hey, Keri is here!” “Hi Fred!” Like a class reunion of sorts. There was Jon Proton, the person who has probably commanded more images of Mars than any other human. And Paolo Bellutta, who has driven a rover more miles than any other human off-world. There were operations folks old and new. As someone who had only been on the Opportunity team for about three years, I felt almost out of place among folks who had spent so much longer working on this mission — they’d spent the majority, if not all, of their careers to date.
We eventually migrated to the room made iconic by Curiosity’s landing, where that rover’s operations team had jumped and cheered, becoming an iconic meme and giving rise to the fame of “Mohawk Guy” Bobak Ferdowsi. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, stood in front of us, along with Squyres, JPL Director Mike Watkins, Mars Exploration Rovers Project Manager John Callas, and Flight System Chief Engineer Rob Manning. Zurbuchen confirmed that we would be radiating the final planned commands to Opportunity that night, and if no response was received from the rover, the MER mission would officially be declared over.
Emotions began seeping out in the room. Squyres teared up while reflecting on the legacy of the tenacious little rover. Tactical Uplink Lead Keri Bean, famous for her unabashed love of Star Wars, brought a host of stuffed “emotional support porgs” to pass out to folks who needed to give them a good squeeze during the announcement — a beautiful reminder that these robotic missions, at their core, are wholly human.
After the briefing, we made our way back up to The Darkroom to watch the final four sets of commands be sent to Opportunity via NASA’s Deep Space Network. Because it was past 9 p.m., the giant radio dishes attempting to talk to Oppy were actually being operated out of Canberra, Australia. The room was full of reflection, chatter, and speculation as the first three sets of commands went out over the course of 25 or so minutes. The iconic, lucky Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) peanuts were passed around for good measure.
Then the final command was on its way to Mars.
“Final radiation complete.”
The room went silent.
Callas, the project manager for Opportunity, watched a small screen for any hint of a return signal while we all strained our eyes toward the same screen from above in The Darkroom.
When the inevitable had come, Callas moved from his place at the signal screens to a wired telephone — seemingly antiquated in this day and age — among the flight controllers. The call was to the Deep Space Network station in Canberra:
On behalf of the MER Project, we’d like to thank the DSN for over 15-and-a-half years of outstanding support, from launch until tonight. That support is one of the reasons why this mission has been so successful. And once again, the DSN has helped us make history. Thank you.
Canberra replied with their own thank yous before Callas released them, ending with the heart-wrenching: “MER Project is off the net.”
Communications were officially disabled at 9:35 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.
A short burst of applause broke out as Callas hung up the phone. But then The Darkroom was silent. No one seemed to really know what to do next. Stay? Leave? Cry? Drink? The emotion in that small room was palpable, a stasis of sadness. I’m not sure anyone was really ready to descend the stairs from The Darkroom and re-enter the atmosphere of Earth — and a solar system down one rover.
Zurbuchen put it beautifully in his remarks to us that night: “Machines are a manifestation of teams.”
Humans built this robotic emissary and sent it to a world to which we ourselves cannot yet venture. It dutifully explored for over 50 times its expected life span. People were married, babies were born, lifelong friendships were forged, all over this rover. It carried many pieces of us with it on its journey on Mars, and those pieces will remain there with her and the dust.
The last phrase I heard as I began my descent out of The Darkroom was from an unidentified Opportunity team member: “13/10 would science again.”