It’s Valentine’s Day. Everyone’s thinking about love: seeking it, finding it, not having it, appreciating it. It’s virtually impossible to escape. Whether we want to or not, we’re all being made to feel something about it. Human emotions fascinate me. I sound a bit like the chief science officer on the alien fleet sent to observe us, but it’s true. We’re incredibly odd. We form strong emotional attachments that don’t make sense. We project our emotional needs onto each other. We project them onto animals. We sometimes even project them onto inanimate objects.
A couple of days ago, the Mars rover Opportunity made news. Fondly called “Oppy” by the NASA team running the mission, the robot has been collecting data on Mars for 15 years and sending it back to Earth to be analyzed. Oppy defied the odds. It was expected to survive the harsh conditions on Mars for only 90 days, and it lasted fifteen years. Among the important discoveries Oppy made is finding evidence that there had once been water flowing on Mars. After a massive sandstorm — the largest in decades — Oppy went silent, and NASA has been trying to contact the rover without luck for eight months. Tuesday was the team’s last effort to contact Oppy before declaring the rover dead. As reported by Marcia Dunn for the Associated Press, the project manager of the mission, John Callas, said, “It’s just like a loved one who’s gone missing, and you keep holding out hope that they will show up and that they’re healthy. But each passing day that diminishes, and at some point you have to say ‘enough’ and move on with your life.”
Oppy’s last message was, “My battery is low and it is getting dark.”
I almost cried the first time I read that. I’m trying not to cry now as I type this. It legitimately makes me emotional to think about Oppy alone on Mars, buried under sand, abandoned. I know it’s just a machine. I know… It doesn’t matter, though. Why do I feel something for Oppy and not the machine I’m typing this on. I spend more time on with this laptop than I do with any human being. It is an integral part of my life. I depend on it. If it stops working, I may cry out of frustration but not because of any deep emotional attachment.
It’s the story.
Stories stir our emotions. They have the power to bind us together and separate us. Oppy’s story is about the adventure of exploration. It is about seeking understanding. It is about hope. It’s also about language. Oppy’s last communiqué rings familiar. We’ve all read stories of explorers in some far off part of the world who realized they were never making it back and penned their goodbyes. There’s a way to graft a human experience on top of what’s happened to Oppy.
It’s the story.
The red planet also claimed Oppy’s identical twin, Spirit, which was pronounced dead in 2011. I had hoped that perhaps in the interim, Oppy may have made his way closer to its twin, and that by some twist of fate they may have found each other in Oppy’s last moments. But they were deployed a month apart to opposite sides of Mars. They’re both alone and will likely never be reunited.
It’s raining on my face.
Anyway… Happy Valentine’s Day. Try to tell yourself a good story.