I have spent the better part of the day going back and forth between crying over the “death” of Mars rover Opportunity, and trying to understand why it has affected me so deeply. There is something at once poignant and terrifying at the thought of a small, silent ambassador of humanity stranded—perhaps forever—on a distant planet. Cut off from any and all contact with those who sent it, disconnected from the mission that once gave it purpose, beyond any hope of return or recovery. Dead.
Tributes have been pouring in from all over the world. An achievement like this captures the imagination. It confirms our shared humanity. It is a communal triumph of the human spirit and of human ingenuity. It affirms our thirst for knowledge, our drive to discover, our insatiable need to ask “why?” and perhaps more importantly, “why not?”
Opportunity was meant to last 90 days. Three months. A span of time smaller than a blip, not even worth mentioning or quantifying in an infinite universe where millennia have passed in the blink God’s eye. Yet Opportunity outlived its expected lifespan and increased its usefulness. Months turned into years. And for nearly two decades, much less than one human lifetime but longer than anyone could have hoped or predicted, the little rover that could gathered data, processed information, took photos, and brought us all just a little closer to the stars.
Now that contact has been lost and Opportunity has been declared dead, my mental image of a brave and intrepid little robot trundling over the surface of Mars has changed to that of a sad, lonely, and abandoned heap of metal and circuits. Logically I know that Opportunity is not a person, not an animal, not a sentient being. Emotionally, though, my heartstrings are remorselessly stretched to the limit by the message, “My battery is low and it is getting dark.” Even now, reading these words makes me want to sob with despair, and rage against some kind of unfairness I can’t define. And as I ask why this should be, an answer suggests itself. Perhaps it’s not the defunct machine I am crying for, but for myself, and for all of humanity.
How often have we felt similar sentiments? I am tired. The darkness is too deep. It’s so cold. I can’t do this anymore. I am alone.
Somehow, a little rover on exploring a new world gave us a reflection of ourselves. It moved over the surface of a planet that has stirred our imaginations since we first knew of its existence, and has starred in our popular culture since we created such a construct. It did just as you or I would do, have done, when set down in some new place. Explore, learn, tell our friends what we have discovered, take photographs, share selfies. In this way, a manmade machine was humanized. It was like us.
Human beings built Opportunity and launched it to the stars. Humanity is its creator and commander—we sent it out into the world to see what we could not. And we waited and watched to see what it would do. And now it sits, abandoned, in a world colder and darker than we can imagine. It’s not so different, really, from the story of us. After all, God created people, and launched them into a new world. Granted, it was a lush garden where every need was met, a far cry from an alien world of dust and rocks, a true howling wilderness. But then God found it necessary to banish humankind from that ideal, into a world that was bigger, harsher, scarier, and more dangerous than anything we had seen before. And while He hasn’t abandoned us, I know it sometimes feels that way.
The banishment from the Garden of Eden is the world’s first morality story. A cause and effect narration that explains the introduction of sin into the world. Yet God himself placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden, along with the Tree of Life. Of course he knew that His people would seek knowledge. I’m sure He expected it. The Bible tells us that wisdom is more valuable than gold and that only fools despise knowledge. When humans moved from the Garden of Eden into the wider world of God’s creation, I am sure He watched with great expectation to see what we would do. Like Opportunity, we began to learn, to explore, to investigate, and to discover. But unlike Opportunity, we are not abandoned. There is no place dark enough, cold enough, far enough, that we can go where He won’t look for us, find us, and call us back.
Even if, like Opportunity, we can’t, or won’t answer, He won’t cease communication, end the mission, or declare us dead. God’s grace is everywhere and we can’t lose it or shake it off. God Himself may call us to go where we don’t wish to go. Far from friends and family, into places that are dark, or cold, or lonely. But He goes with us. Opportunity allowed us to look beyond ourselves, into the infinite worlds of God’s creation and to find, not only the eternal, but ourselves.