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The Dead Mars Rover Was a Springsteen Fan

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech, Getty Images

How do you hold a funeral in space? On Tuesday, February 12, the JPL team said good-bye to Mars rover Opportunity with a song after trying to regain contact with the vehicle for over eight months. The good-bye was a long time coming; NASA launched the rover into space in 2003 with the intentions of a 90-day mission that ultimately lasted almost 15 years (its sister rover, Spirit, lasted until 2011). As their final communication to the rover, scientists at NASA decided to play it Billie Holiday’s 1944 recording of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which ends with the lyrics: “I’ll find you / In the morning sun / And when the night is new / I’ll be looking at the moon / But I’ll be seeing you.”

According to Steve Squyres, the Mars Rover Mission’s principal investigator, the folks at NASA had been playing music for the rovers since the early days of their missions. He spoke with the Cut about saying good-bye to Opportunity, how it felt to see the public respond to the rover’s “noble death,” and why Oppy was probably a fan of the Boss all along.

Where did the decision to play Opportunity a good-bye song come from?
Back in the early early days of the mission, we instituted Rover wake-up songs for fun. So we’d play a song each morning when we would wake the rover up and and get it to work. And as we attempted to try to regain contact with Opportunity, we reinstituted that. You know, it’s fun. It’s good for the team, everybody enjoys it, and it’s something to help keep everybody’s spirits up as we’re going through that process. There was some good ones, I remember: “Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones, of course. “Kickstart My Heart” by Motley Crue. There’s probably a list somewhere.

We tried everything we could think of to make contact with Opportunity and didn’t get any contact. Last Tuesday, we sent our final command to the vehicle, and — I was very touched by this — the operations team decided to let me pick the final wake-up song. I thought about it and finally settled on “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday. It’s a beautiful, very sentimental song about loss and longing but also with a very strong thread of fondness. It just felt to me like it fit the moment.

What was the process of waking the rover up?
When the rover was healthy and things were going well on Mars, the rover would wake up at a certain time each day — in the late Martian morning when there’s enough sun on the solar panels to really help it get down to business. And one of the first things we would do is give it a set of commands for the day. In the early days of the mission, we were trying to simply regain contact with the vehicle, and get it to communicate with us in any way, shape, or form.

After 14 and a half years, Mars was struck by one of the most severe global dust storms in decades. Opportunity is a solar-powered rover, but the skies were so utterly darkened by all the dust in the atmosphere the rover had effectively no power at all. Of course all that dust in the atmosphere has to go somewhere, and as it fell on the planet’s surface, it likely fell on Opportunity’s solar panels, which would again prevent it from getting power even if now the sun is shining again.

There are many possible scenarios for the way the vehicle might be affected by a dust storm, and by losing power, so we had to work our way through different ways to reestablish contact. Eventually, the only thing left that made any sense is that the rover died during the storm — that something broke inside the vehicle during the storm.

We did our best. Everything that you could try, we tried. And that final session on Tuesday, we all knew it was the last one. We designed for 90 days and we got 14 and a half years so I feel pretty good about it.

What was that final good-bye like?
We saw it coming for months. When we saw how serious the dust storm was, we realized this this could be the end. And as time progressed and nothing seemed to work. It became more and more likely. So it wasn’t it wasn’t sudden or unexpected. Of course it’s a little bit bittersweet. But we always knew the thing was not immortal. It was designed for 90 days, and we were over 5,000 days into the mission. You can walk away from that head held high. The rover died, but that’s an honorable death.

When I saw the report of the last song your team played for the rover, it was on Valentine’s day, and it destroyed me a little bit. Did you expect the reaction from the public?
To see that kind of outpouring of love and outpouring of concern and all that for these rovers that we worked so hard on, it really really means a lot to us. I’ve gotten so many wonderful emails from people I never knew.

We work very hard to share the adventure of these rovers with the people who pay for it: the taxpayers. Every picture that we ever took we just pipeline straight to the World Wide Web as soon as it hit the ground. That was not the usual procedure when we first started this mission. But we just had a sense that people would be interested.

Opportunity even had a nickname, Oppy, which feels so human. Where did that come from?
That came from somewhere out of the public, it didn’t come from us. But it became widely used.

And something to remember is, this was a two rover mission. Spirit lasted six years, but it made spectacular discoveries. We pushed that rover much harder than Opportunity; Spirit’s landing site was much more difficult and much more rugged than the Opportunity site. That rover had a shorter, more intense life but made scientific discoveries every bit as important as those made by Opportunity. And so, this is not just the end of Opportunity’s mission; it’s the end of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission and that very much included Spirit. And the longevity of Spirit and Opportunity, and the magnitude of discoveries that they made are all directly related to work that was done by an absolutely extraordinary team of engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, going back 18 years ago. Yes, it’s about the rovers, but fundamentally the reason they happened at all was that team of engineers — one continuous, extraordinary group of people.

Can you remember any other songs your team played for Opportunity and Spirit?
The day that we drove off the lander — when the mission really starts — that wake-up song was “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. And then, in order to prolong the life of the vehicle, we had to do something called Deep Sleep that we never really intended to do. It’s basically turning off the entire power system overnight and then booting everything back up in the morning. The first time we did it we were very nervous about the effect that it might have on the rover, that it might scramble a computer or something. The wake-up song that morning we woke it up from the first Deep Sleep was “Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin.

There was always an attempt by whoever picked the wake up song to have it fit the circumstance, and the ones during and after the dust storm were largely about waking up and getting started, that kind of thing. So that is part of the fun of operating a robot on another planet.

Of all of the data Opportunity and Spirit sent back, do you have any favorite photos or transitions?
They sent back so many things over the years, it’s hard to pick a favorite. It really is just the accumulation of 15 years of beautiful data. There were other certainly ones that were surprises. I remember the first time we found a meteorite. Probably my favorite image of the entire mission came on the 12th day of Spirit’s mission, when we took a picture looking back at our first ever real tracks on Mars. We had all six wheels on Martian soil, and that for me was the culmination of 16 years of trying to make something like that happen.

The Dead Mars Rover Was a Springsteen Fan