This week, a lot of people have taken a chance – an Opportunity, if you will – to look to the heavens and thank the little robot that could.
The story’s well-known by now. How the planned mission of the Mars rover Opportunity was for 90 days. How, like other rovers before it, it kept going long past its expiration date – by more than 14 years, in fact.
And now, like other rovers before it, it’s gone silent. Nothing had been heard from it since last June, when a Martian dust storm covered its solar cells. After hoping that another wind would clear the rover and allow it to recharge, NASA finally declared Opportunity “dead.”
“The last message they received was basically ‘My battery is low and it’s getting dark,’” science writer Jacob Margolis tweeted. The words were Margolis’s poetic interpretation of the June signal, not a literal sentence from Opportunity. But the “last words” added an extra touch of heartbreak to the moment, turning it from the shutdown of a machine to the silencing of a beloved explorer.
Does that sound silly? I don’t see why.
Caring for things is what we do. Even when they can’t care back.
We read books or watch movies and anguish over the fate of people who never existed, except in our minds.
We name cars and say goodbye to childhood homes, so interwoven with our lives that we can’t imagine their absence.
We become part of a story. We invest a little, or a lot, of ourselves in it. And when a good story ends, it touches us. It leaves us a little different for the experience.
But with a good story, there’s always one chapter left, even after the volume is closed. The one that we write.
Having taken this story into our hearts, what do we do with it?
That, too, may sound a little odd. Most of us, after the age of six, don’t try to don a cape and cowl and fight evil on the streets after watching a superhero movie. One does not simply walk into Mordor after reading or viewing The Lord of the Rings, or search crowds for Rhett Butler after completing Gone With The Wind, or build up a high-tech loadout after reading Tom Clancy. (OK, there may be some exceptions on that last one.)
But we do take Lessons. Inspiration. Examples. Even hope. The stories we invest in, the people and experiences we treasure, all teach us something. And maybe even inspire us to a next step.
It might be the simple reassurance that, even if they can’t fly or shoot energy beams, heroes may already be among us, looking just like you and me – could maybe even be you and me.
It may be the reminder that fighting evil is a hard and grueling task, but that even small actions can add up to huge differences, even without the aid of a magic ring or an Elvish sword.
It can even be the lesson, taught by a machine of our own making, that we can be capable of so much more than we believe. That we can keep going beyond everyone’s expectations, even our own.
Maybe even far enough to one day thank Opportunity in person.
The skies don’t have to be the limit. The story can go where we choose to take it, both inside us and beyond us. That’s inspiring to me as a writer, as a space geek, and even as a human being.
Care. Follow where it takes you. Write the next story.
After all, Opportunity is where we choose to find it.