10 Years Of Opportunity: Celebrating The Rover’s Role On Mars And Earth

John Timmer | Ars Technica | January 25, 2014

How a slow drive on Mars has changed what we expect from space exploration.

On January 25, 2004, a strange object fell out of the sky on a distant planet—and when it hit the surface, it started to bounce. Even though that airbag-cushioned descent was exactly how things were planned, it wasn't exactly an elegant start to what's turned out to be a record-setting journey for Opportunity, which continues to operate long past its minimal mission time of 90 days.

Opportunity may be notable for its longevity and all the scientific data that it's sent back to Earth over the past decade. But it's also notable in how the rover has set standards for what we expect exploration missions to look like, from the hardware to the media coverage. When the mission is appreciated in its full context, it becomes a story that goes well beyond the little rover that could; it's the story of a mission that ushered NASA into a new era of space exploration.

Big projects on little budgets

Fights over NASA's budget go back for decades. They've mostly focused on the big-ticket item: manned space flight. But as far back as the Mariner and Pioneer programs, NASA was also funding robotic exploration. With the staggering success of the Voyager probes and the failed promise of the Shuttle program—which didn't make going to orbit either cheap or simple—the appeal of robotic exploration was significant.