Learning Opportunity: teaching death using technology

Opportunity takes a shadow portrait, March 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Recently the Opportunity rover on Mars made the news- after more than a decade on the surface, it has developed serious memory problems. As a project engineer said:

“The problems started off fairly benign, but now they’ve become more serious — much like an illness, the symptoms were mild, but now with the progression of time things have become more serious,”

We use spacecraft like Opportunity, Voyagers 1 and 2, and newer projects like Curiosity to teach kids about space, geology, and physics. Even though they are machines, they can teach us about one of the most important human journeys- death.

Space missions have a life expectancy. Probes we send to the Moon, Mars, and beyond the Solar System talk to us. Then over time their components fail, their signal grows weaker, and eventually we lose them. Voyager 2 was launched 13 years before I was born, and is still transmitting faintly from billions of miles away. Opportunity still roams, but its sister rover Spirit got stuck and went offline a few years ago. It lost a sibling, but soldiers on.

Death is a scary idea to everyone, and it’s difficult to bring the subject to youth. But what Opportunity is going through is an impersonal way to talk about a process that will affect their grandparents, parents, and eventually themselves. The probes have less energy. Their joints and arms don’t work the same as they used to. Their memory is spotty and they require more medical attention than before.

And like humans, these machines have life experience and leave a legacy. Opportunity has traveled almost 26 miles in the past decade, making several groundbreaking discoveries about the surface of Mars and its history. When it one day powers down, we will have a familiar debate about what to do with its body- will it stay there for eternity, or will we one day put it in a museum? How can we honor what has passed?

There is wisdom to be gained with the fact that even artificial things have a life cycle, and that machines and humans can have a great deal in common with their journeys. One day, like Voyager, I will stop talking. And how will the world remember me?

O grand charioteers!


O grand charioteers!
souls who hitch onto Mars,
ride his endless fury
above sun-baked mountains
to sacred acres where
mortals seldom tread free

across the many skies
scorched by stern suns, until
a motherly moon heals
lets stout heroes stand tall;
only true explorers
see nature’s gift – complete

Bangs of shadow

Taken from Ron Cohen (http://atmywindow.com/2013/04/21/gibbous-moon/)

Framed by bangs of shadow
pock-marked Luna eyes
the Earthrise
still shivering
from the chaos
that birthed her
billions of years past

Gaia knows she
should send more
than the occasional postcard
but the squabbling folk
who call the surface theirs
seems to be more interested
in earthly war
than cosmic peace.

Humankind’s ultimate achievement

Today I was waiting in line at the pharmacy. They had a sign advertising vaccinations- whooping cough, meningitis- and it hooked me back onto a long train of thought I had yesterday.

There have been two viral diseases that have been eradicated. Smallpox was last observed in the mid-to-late 70s, and the  WHO proclaimed it eradicated in May 1980. Thirty years later, rinderpest, which has been a serious threat to cattle, was gone. Polio continues to persist in a few small regions of the world, but in 2012 had less than a thousand reported cases. Guinea worm disease eradication, led by the Carter Center, is almost entirely confined to South Sudan. Former President Jimmy Carter, 88, stated last year “My goal now is to outlive the parasite.”

When you think about huge, famous diseases, the idea that they can be eliminated across the entire Earth is, to say the least, impressive. So the question I had then is- what’s the most impressive thing humankind has ever achieved?

The eradication of smallpox is stunning for simply how deadly it was throughout human history. The Antonine Plague which was one of the most important epidemics in European history, led to the depopulation and crisis of the 2nd and 3rd century Roman Empire.

Outside of medicine, the Moon landing is comparable in that living people had seen the entire history of powered flight. The gap between the Wright Flyer and Apollo 11 is about 66 years- so many people in their eighties had clear memories of both. Voyager 1, launched during the Disco Era, is close to leaving the Solar System entirely. The enemy powers of the most destructive war in history are now in some of the closest political and economic unions at present. A massive particle accelerator, decades in the making, found evidence of a boson that gives particles mass.

It’s interesting to think about what achievement is the most jaw-dropping, the sort of thing that you have to periodically remind yourself actually happened.


the dead planet mocks;
tells lies;
with its luminous purity;
seducing mankind since;
eras in which only whispers remain;
locked eyes in a tango, crescendoing to a;
brilliant climax;
Luna full, naked and unashamed;
grown old yet a child that has;
yet to grasp polite society;
its uniformity, dull features electrified;
only through the fury of Sol, the Father;
to gaze at Luna is to see;
a canvas touched only by the;
brutal march of time;

On a night long since forgotten

When the shimmering strip of our home galaxy

Illuminated faces of silent wonderment

Our place was settled, and the cosmos reached out

And welcomed us as its children

The cosmos never forgets, to a degree that

An elephant would find excessive-

It sits, Indian-style and whispers amongst itself

As though Earth is a grand theater and

The cosmos has not been shushed by a

Red-clad usher

Do its children remember that night,

Before the calendar informed us that we

Were hurtling forward, when every night was a festival

Of the always-renewed covenant

We, the children borne of stars and time

Gaze up into the mother’s eyes

And see with perfect clarity and see

The unity of the past