How Often Do You Get 36 Times What You Paid For?

On the other hand, would you buy a rover that, in 9 years, has “roved” only 22 miles, or about 2.3 miles per year?

I think if it’s Mars that is being roved, you just might.

NASA’s “Opportunity”, the little rover that could, has passed it’s ninth year of operation, is going strong, participating right now in the exploration of the rim of an ancient crater on a planet that is, on average, 225 million kilometers from earth (about 140 million miles). An enormous distance. So far away, that light takes over 12 minutes to reach Earth. Imagine that: point your light at somebody, and switch it on. While looking directly at you, it still takes 12 whole minutes for them to see that you’ve turned on your light. Imagine sitting there for 12 minutes, while the light speeds toward you, finally touching you.

Opportunity was part of a pair of Mars rovers that landed on the planet nine years ago. And now, embarking on its tenth year, the rover has exceeded its original, planned mission duration of three months. Thirty-Six times longer, than planned, and rolling right along. Right now, the crater it examines might provide information about a possible older, wet environment than seen in earlier missions.

Originally, Opportunity was planned to roll just 2000 feet (600 meters), around the small Eagle Crater, where it landed. It is a testament to good science, great engineering, and the incredible care of the scientists, technicians and, yes, even managers and bureaucrats, who took this from concept, through design, fabrication, launch, space travel, landing and deployment — and who have since operated, for nine years, a robotic explorer who’s every move is carefully scripted. It is a staggering achievement. And one that continues to deliver, as Opportunity has long since passed from its original mission, onto roving across 22 miles of Mars’ surface, examining a series of larger and larger craters – going deeper into Mars’ shrouded past with each mission.

As a technological accomplishment, it is difficult to fully appreciate. And NASA has always been far more results-oriented than the typical government agency (it has to be). But this isn’t the first time NASA (and, by extension, JPL, various contractors, etc.) have given us more than we expected. Rarely (very rarely) is there a serious failure, as they are terrible and spectacular when they do occur. But more often, things get done,  missions are accomplished and, occasionally, they are exceeded, by far.

Another example would be NASA’s long ongoing interstellar mission. That’s right: “interstellar”, as in “between the stars”. Not just our planets. Not just our entire solar system, but interstellar. And this mission launched, and has been continuing, for over 35 years. But wait… it gets better. We don’t have just a single spacecraft on this long, interstellar mission — we have two. These are the two Voyager explorers. Launched in 1977, both of them are now further away from our Sun than is Pluto. They are, in fact, now crossing the boundary between our very solar system, and the broader part of this galaxy, between stars.

And yet, when they started, their purpose was to fly by and around Saturn and Jupiter. And this they did, discovering Volcano’s on Jupiter’s moon, and many astounding details of the rings of Saturn. And if they had then fallen silent, their purpose would have been achieved, and their mission would be a complete success. But NASA had designed and built very well, indeed. Despite being tiny, and having very little propulsive capability, they could be jockeyed into positions that used the powerful gravitational forces of the planets themselves so as to be slung into new missions. Contemplate that – new missions, designed, calculated, and then embarked upon – a whole new set of challenges for NASA and JPL in particular. The exact and correct calculations boggle the mind, and yet, were done with sufficient accuracy to allow one of the two Voyager spacecraft to then examine two more planets! Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune. It is so easy to write that, yet these are two planets, previously were only seen as lights in the sky, or as disks on a telescopic image. In all the time since, those two planets have not been re-visited.

And now, over 35 years later, both probes are literally pushing our knowledge ever outward, beyond the very influence of our most familiar star. It is impossible to evaluate how much more was gotten than was paid for. Such merely financial comparisons pale, and sound ridiculous when put into context, for we, as the body that is Man, are doing one of the very few things that seems to be embedded in the most intimate part of our existence. Something that goes beyond any mere number or price.

We are exploring! And perhaps quite literally, new worlds await.