The Little Rover that Could – Lessons We Learned from Opportunity

Mars, the ball of red sand that’s just behind Earth in the race around the Sun. It may not look like it, but it’s the most similar planet to Earth within our solar system. Its terrain is marked by sedimentary mountains and deep, craggy valleys where ancient rivers once flowed. It features a thin atmosphere that protects the planet from wayward asteroids and a day on Mars (a.k.a a sol) lasts roughly 24 hours. Mars even has brilliant cobalt hue sunsets that beautifully contrast the fiery orange sunsets we marvel at on Earth. But how did we learn all this priceless information about our interplanetary neighbor? *Cue Fanfare* NASA's Opportunity rover! 

Opportunity has given us all this information, plus thousands of other statistics, photos, and data points that have helped scientists assemble a clear image of the once mysterious Red Planet. Originally launched in 2004, Opportunity has traversed Mars' rocky surface day and night, serving as a symbol for human achievement. However, on Wednesday, February 13, 2019, Opportunity transmitted its last signal and NASA put an official end to the fifteen-year mission. In its lifetime, this iconic little robot has taught humans a great deal about what life could be like on other planets. But its also important to recognize what Opportunity taught us about life right here on earth.

The following is a list of life lessons we learned from Opportunity: Nasa's little rover that could. 


1. Defy expectations.

In 2004, NASA sent Opportunity and its sibling, Spirit, on a mission to travel in a one mile radius around Mars over a period of 90 days. Both rovers shattered all expectations for the mission. Not only did both travel farther than a mile within the 90 days, they both lasted way longer than they were designed too. Spirit lasted until 2011, and Opportunity chugged along until early 2019. Moreover, Opportunity traveled more distance than all other Mars rovers combined. 

This goes to show that you are not defined by the expectations set by others. At some point, your peers have tried to put you in a box that fit their own ideas of how you should act. And it’s likely your parents have tried to tell you what your life is supposed to look like as well. But their opinions are just that, opinions. It’s up to you to decide who you want to be. Only you can decide what your path is in the universe. 


2. Don't let minor setbacks define you.

Opportunity’s racks as it finally gets off of Purgatory, a sand dune it was stuck on for 8 weeks 

Photo credit: NASA 

Throughout Oppy's long mission, the rover experienced several setbacks that made NASA question the mission’s viability. Some of these setbacks included Opportunity losing the steering in its front wheels, getting stuck in a sand dune, and even losing access to its onboard flash memory. But, despite all of these problems, Opportunity kept going. 

In this case, we can use Opportunity as a role model for our own daily struggles. Life is riddled with minor setbacks; bombing an assignment, getting into a fight with a friend, struggling with mental health, or even just having an off day can make it seem like the world is ending. But if Opportunity can overcome being stuck on a mountain that is literally named Purgatory for months on end, you can overcome whatever you are grappling with at the moment. 


3. Storms can be a good thing.

Martian wind storm

Photo credit: Weather Channel 

During Opportunity's trek across Mars, one thing NASA scientists looked forward to was seasonal wind storms. These storms would sweep high velocity winds across Mars's surface and block out the sun for weeks. But NASA scientists preferred to call this "Robot Cleaning Season." The high winds would often blow the dust off Opportunity's solar array and allow it to keep on going. 

Like in the lesson before, Opportunity can serve as a role model for when we are unexpectedly hit with a life event that is hard to overcome. Major setbacks don’t occur often, but when they do they can be extremely discouraging. The end of a long relationship, loosing a job, or the unexpected loss of a loved one are all shocking events that call your true values into question. But its important to see the good in the bad. Sure a storm may blow you down, but it can also be an opportunity to brush the dust off your shoulder and reevaluate who you are.


4. You are never truly alone. 

Every year on the anniversary of its launch date, Opportunity would sing happy birthday to itself. All by itself on the desolate planet, the robot is singing a tune that no human would ever hear in person. On the surface, this is a very lonely image but all the way back at mission control NASA engineers and scientists were cutting a cake and singing happy birthday to celebrate another successful year for Opportunity. 

At some points in life, it can be easy to feel like you are all alone and you have no one to turn to for guidance. But this is never true. Friends, family, teachers, and other mentors are all there to support you. They are like your own mission control and they want to see you do well. They will celebrate when you succeed and will encourage you to get back up if you get stuck. All you have to do is reach out.


The end of Opportunity's mission was bittersweet for NASA scientists and space enthusiasts alike. Its historic lifespan is inspiring the next wave of space exploration and will hopefully culminate in the eventual colonization of Mars. But above all that, this robot was able to teach us surprisingly profound lessons about our own lives. 


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