On Feb. 13, the Earth said a bittersweet final farewell to one of the greatest accomplishments in space history: the Mars rover known as Opportunity. Opportunity, or “Oppy” as some call it, went silent last June when a planet-wide sandstorm developed and likely covered solar panels used to power the rover, leaving Oppy unable to recharge its batteries. In a hauntingly beautiful last transmission, Oppy’s communication translated to, “My batteries are low, and it’s getting dark.” Words haven’t choked me up that much since hearing Peter Parker whisper, “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good” in Tony’s ear in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

Opportunity, along with its partner rover Spirit, launched in 2003 as a part of the Mars Exploration Rover mission. What was originally slated as a 90-day mission to search for evidence of past water on Mars turned into a much longer journey, with Spirit becoming embedded in soil in 2009, losing communication in 2010 and its mission officially ending in 2011, and Oppy lasting an incredible 15 years on the red planet’s surface. Between the two rovers, NASA was able to collect enough evidence to conclude that water did indeed once flow on Mars. This was a monumental discovery that changed how we view our sister planet and the possibilities of space exploration itself.

In many ways, Oppy represented the best qualities of scientific exploration. It highlighted what can be accomplished with unlimited curiosity, dedication to exploring the unknown and commitment to cooperation. It has earned its place as a legend in the space history book, but we must not let its mission stop here. Opportunity’s last transmission should be a rallying point for humanity to again push our limits and aim further than we ever have before. Our next goal should be putting humans on Mars; moreover, we ought to strive to establish a full-time colony. This task is no easy feat, but with hard work and determination, it is entirely within our grasp — to boldly go where no one has gone before.

To many, such an aspiration may very well seem like a plot from Star Trek, but realistically, it is much more science than science-fiction. If we focus our resources and concentrate on a clear target, reaching Mars may be easier than we think. During the Cold War and the infamous space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, former President John F. Kennedy stood before a nation and declared we would put a man on the moon. It wasn’t a question of “if,” but a matter of “when.” He famously inspired a generation when he said, “We choose to go to the moon and these other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” After a few years of intensive research and experimenting, the U.S. was able to see Neil Armstrong take those first few historic steps across the lunar landscape. When we decided to go to the moon, we didn’t have the technology yet, just an idea and old-fashioned American determination. The same ideas can apply to Mars if we truly want it to.

Unfortunately, after the success of the Apollo missions, former President Richard Nixon fundamentally changed the space program. He reeled in U.S. ambitions by ending human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit and did not embark on a new space exploration goal that would require huge investments like Apollo. From then on, NASA’s human spaceflight was limited to the space shuttle program and the International Space Station, until former President George W. Bush began phasing out space shuttle missions after the tragedy of the 2003 Columbia mission killed 7 astronauts. Since 2010, the U.S. has been entirely dependent on Russia for getting our astronauts to space, though that has the potential to change, as President Donald Trump said in the recent State of the Union that “this year, American astronauts will go back to space on American rockets.” This is likely in reference to the SpaceX test flight scheduled for later this year.

There are those who say space exploration is a waste of resources and that money spent on space would be better used here on Earth funding schools, health care or defense. While I understand where doubters are coming from, history provides evidence contrary to this notion. In order to get to the moon, we had to develop technology at a faster rate than ever before, and the side-effects of that kind of development are technologies that vastly improved our lives. Cell-phone cameras, CAT scan machines, athletic shoes, water purification systems, memory foam, baby formula and artificial limbs are just some of the products of space travel research.

If that is what we could do then, imagine the possibilities that could come from a mission to Mars now. The potential is almost incalculable, and just one of many reasons going to Mars is worthwhile.

In 1969, the entire world watched proudly as humanity took a giant leap forward into the future. Now, 50 years later in 2019, we have the opportunity to accomplish the impossible again, the ability to achieve something even those who watched the moon landing live could not imagine being feasible. Reaching Mars is that new impossible possibility. I’m not sure exactly what it is about exploration that has captivated the human mind for so long — the thing that pushes us into the unknown. Regardless of what it is that drives us, we need to listen to the call, embrace the uncertainty and dive headfirst into discovery. While we have just closed a significant chapter on the quest for Mars, the next one is just beginning. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to not squander the next opportunity to explore Mars.

Timothy Spurlin can be reached at timrspur@umich.edu.

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