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Opinion

Commentary: Mailbag: Proud of the little rover that made NASA history

Mars Exploration Rover-B Opportunity, known by those close to him as “Oppy,” passed away on Wednesday, Feb. 13, at the age of 15. Preceded by his sister, Spirit, he is survived by his sons Curiosity and InSight.

Born in La Cañada at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Opportunity was a prodigious learner. From a very early age he was able to roll around and communicate with his parents and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. His sturdy build and keen eyesight made him a natural fit for the job, and in summer 2003 he set off for Mars, where he spent the rest of his life.

Oppy made a splash on arrival, landing in a crater (his proud parents described the moment as a “hole in one”) and discovering the first meteorite on another planet. He had signed up for a 90-day mission, but with the tenacity that characterized his life, after 90 days he volunteered to keep going as long as possible.

Over the next 15 years, Oppy lived a very full life. He did important scientific research, went on a road trip, climbed mountains and explored craters, filled hundreds of scrapbooks with pictures. He even ran a marathon, clocking a respectable time of 10.5 years.

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In December of 2014, Oppy was diagnosed with amnesia, which made him more temperamental and less able to focus on doing the science he loved. Fortunately, treatment was available, and though bouts of memory loss continued in the later years of his life, up to the end he recognized friends and family.

Those last few months, sadly, were tough. Oppy’s drive to explore had taken him far away from those who loved him. On June 10, 2018, the brave little guy sent out his final message. “My battery is low,” he said, “and it’s getting dark.” Two days later, millions of miles from home, he closed his eyes for the last time.

Opportunity, we’re so sorry. In your final moments, when you were most afraid and most alone, we couldn’t be there for you. Please know, on behalf of everyone back home, we’re all incredibly proud of you.

Sam Whitefield

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Monterey

Author’s note: I grew up in La Cañada at the same time as Spirit and Opportunity. When I heard about Opportunity’s end, I realized it felt like the death of another person and deserved an obituary. The rovers didn’t just teach us about Mars — by being viewed not as robots but as people, they taught us about ourselves.


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