In Memoriam: Spirit Rover, 2004-2010

If you’re feeling a little sad today at the news that the Spirit rover is “dead,” you’re not alone. And we all know we’re anthropomorphizing here, but it is hard not to. As MER project manager John Callas said at yesterday’s press conference, the MER rovers are “the cutest darn things out in the solar system,” and yes, we’ve become attached to them. Below are a few quotes we’ve gathered from Steve Squyres, Scott Maxwell, and some of the other people who have been involved with the MER mission in various capacities.

Feel free to add your best memories of Spirit’s mission in the comment section.

Rover Driver Scott Maxwell with a model of MER. Photo courtesy Scott Maxwell

Rover Driver Scott Maxwell. Maxwell has been part of the rover driving team since before the MER rovers lauched. He is publishing the diary he has kept, five years delayed on his Mars and Me blog.

“My take on this is that I know I’m supposed to be sad and I know that at some point I will be really sad, but at the moment it is hard to be sad because that feeling is overwhelmed by the pride of what Spirit accomplished,” Maxwell told Universe Today. “She accomplished an enormous amount in the six years plus that she was active on Mars, and we have every good reason to be proud of her. That is dominating my reaction to this announcement today. It terrible that she’s gone but I’m so proud of her, she did so much, she lived so long and accomplished such great things it’s hard to feel any other way.”

Will Spirit’s official loss put a big hole in Maxwell’s day?

“In terms of my practical day to day operations, not so much,” he said. “My day is filled with taking care of Opportunity and working on the upcoming Mar Science Lab mission, so actually I didn’t have that much to do with Spirit the past year. The way it will affect me is that I won’t be getting the weekly planning schedule for Spirit anymore, so in that way Spirit is going to disappear out of my world.”

Maxwell’s cat died a few months ago he finds he sometimes has an unconscious expectation that the cat will greet him when Maxwell returns home, but then he realizes the cat isn’t there anymore. “That’s the kind of hole that Spirit will leave in my life, where I’ll be unconsciously looking for scheduling emails, or data or information about Spirit, and it is not going to be there, and that place that she has occupied in my life is just not going to be there anymore. I’ve had time to get used to that over the past year, of not actively driving her, so I’ve gone through that transition and I’ll go through this transition next.”

MER PI Steve Squyres. Credit: NASA

Steve Squyres, MER Principal Investigator

“What’s most remarkable to me about Spirit’s mission is just how extensive her accomplishments became,” Squyres said in a JPL press release. “What we initially conceived as a fairly simple geologic experiment on Mars ultimately turned into humanity’s first real overland expedition across another planet. Spirit explored just as we would have, seeing a distant hill, climbing it, and showing us the vista from the summit. And she did it in a way that allowed everyone on Earth to be part of the adventure.”

Squyres said Spirit’s unexpected discovery of concentrated silica deposits was one of the most important findings by either rover.

“It showed that there were once hot springs or steam vents at the Spirit site, which could have provided favorable conditions for microbial life,” he said.

The silica-rich soil was next to a low plateau called Home Plate, which was Spirit’s main destination after the traverse long distances and climbed up and down Husband Hill. “What Spirit showed us at Home Plate was that early Mars could be a violent place, with water and hot rock interacting to make what must have been spectacular volcanic explosions. It was a dramatically different world than the cold, dry Mars of today,” said Squyres.

Chris Potts points to Gusev Crater on Mars on January 4, 2004, after the MER navigation team landed the Spirit rover on Mars with unprecedented accuracy. Photo courtesy of Chris Potts

Chris Potts was the Deputy Navigation Team Chief for both MER rovers.

“My thoughts immediately go back to the night Spirit landed in Gusev Crater on Jan. 3, 2004,” Potts told Universe Today. “It was a nerve wracking evening, thinking about the dangers involved with bringing Spirit from 12,000 mph to a safe landing via menacing bounces inside the airbags. No one could dare imagine that Spirit would continue on to explore Mars for over 6 years. Such an engineering feat requires the best from everyone involved, from the early designers to the operations team that extracted every last bit that Spirit had to offer. Spirit overcame so many obstacles on the journey, that the rover seemed to have a destiny that would not be denied. Spirit has finally reached the inevitable mission end, but I like to imagine the future when space tourists will follow Spirit’s tracks and continue to marvel at what the rover was able to accomplish.”

Doug Ellison, founder of, where imaging enthusiasts get together to work with data being produced by robotic missions. He started the website, in part, because of the remarkable images being returned by the MER mission.

“I’ve been trying to figure out the words to describe how it feels,” Ellison told Universe Today. “Like losing a family member isn’t that short of the mark. When those early raw JPG’s were put onto their website so quickly I just couldn’t help myself. I found myself making color composites, panoramas, anaglyphs…and that’s what triggered the making of what became UMSF. It’s been a 7 year adventure that’s been shared through more than 125,000 images. We all lived that adventure through those pictures, together.”

Ellison said it is heartbreaking to see Spirit’s part of the mission come to an end. “Mars always had the power to end things, and she did, on her terms and not ours,” he said. “That’s as it should be, Spirit went down fighting in the battle against freezing temperatures on a barren near airless planet. My only regret is that we’ll never truly know exactly what caused Spirit to stay quiet.”

“We think of ‘Spirit’ as that robot on Mars,” he continued. “Without the team of scientists and engineers here on the ground who figured out what to do with that robot, the adventure we’ve been on, together, would never have happened. She’s part of this large team. She’s the teams feet with every drive she made. She’s their eyes with every picture she took. She’s their hands with every rock she studied. And, for many of us, she’s also its heart. The sol-to-sol rhythm of seeing new pictures and planning new adventures was the heartbeat of this large family that wasn’t just the mission personnel at JPL, Cornell and elsewhere – it wasn’t even just Spirit – it was all of us. That family was the thousands and thousands of people who followed along all over the world, it was the robot that did the dirty work, the engineers who kept her safe and the scientists who made the most of her. That family is now one member short – but it still exists. It formed around this little robot called Spirit, and will carry on through other projects.”

“Spirit didn’t die. She just moved on. I feel so very very sorry for the engineers who spent so long designing, building, and then for more than 6 years, using that little robot. But most of all, I feel sorry for Curiosity. As someone at UMSF suggested – that rover’s now sat in the clean room thinking ‘How the heck am I supposed to follow an act like that?'”

Neil Mottinger.

Neil Mottinger from JPL worked on the navigation team for the launch and trajectory of the two spacecraft that brought Spirit and Opportunity to Mars.

“It’s an incredible testimony to engineering that this plucky little craft survived 3 winters, when it wasn’t designed to survive any such weather conditions at all,” Mottinger told Universe Today. “Dust storms didn’t drown its ability to generate electricity thanks to the dust devils that repeatedly cleaned the panels. May its tenacity remind us all to strive for greater goals and push on way beyond the immediate horizons before us.”

Stu Atkinson, member of UMSF, poet and writer penned this poem about the end of Spirit’s mission. You can also read a short story he wrote about a year ago of what could have happened in some households when Spirit died.

MER Project Manager John Callas. Credit: JPL

John Callas has written a letter to his MER team, and in part said, “But let’s remember the adventure we have had. Spirit has climbed mountains, survived rover-killing dust storms, rode out three cold, dark winters and made some of the most spectacular discoveries on Mars. She has told us that Mars was once like Earth. There was water and hot springs, the conditions that could have supported life. She has given us a foundation to further explore the Red Planet and to understand ourselves and our place in the universe.

“But in addition to all the scientific discoveries Spirit has given us in her long, productive rover life, she has also given us a great intangible. Mars is no longer a strange, distant and unknown place. Mars is now our neighborhood. And we all go to work on Mars every day. Thank you, Spirit. Well done, little rover. And to all of you, well done, too.”

We’ll be adding more quotes about Spirit as they come in.

16 Replies to “In Memoriam: Spirit Rover, 2004-2010”

  1. Images from Spirit were some of the first things I posted on my own image-based space exploration site, back in February 2009 when I started it up. Spirit got stuck not long afterwards but kept sending images and data for many months…when she went silent I kept up the hope that it wasn’t *really* the end. But here we are, and it is indeed the end of her mission. It’s a sad day, but like Scott said there is always the fact that she accomplished just so much during her time on Mars – which, we must remind ourselves, is not a very forgiving environment. Even for a tough little robot like Spirit.

    She will be missed, but we must move on…”ad astra per aspera”, as it is said, and though this is definitely one of the “aspera” parts we certainly won’t forget Spirit, and we’ll always know exactly where she is…

  2. Over their years long mission, both Mars rovers have gotten a whole load of adoration from me. Spirit in particular though. I guess I view it as ‘the little robot that could’, and the official death of Spirit has hit me in a not unexpected way. I will miss Spirit. A lot.

  3. Too bad. But it is Good To Move On.

    Memories of Spirit? She was the first born of the Mars Twins, and she dug in to find the concentrated silica.

    [I'm sorry, but Opportunity was always my preferred twin. Maybe it was the adorable wanderings among the blueberry fields, or the way she can stretch her legs. It's a Mars Mystery, it is.]

  4. I have no doubt that in the not-to-distant future we can expect that Spirit will be revived by an exploration team from Earth. Perhaps Spirit will someday be returned to Earth, or perhaps those who first explore Mars will enjoy having Spirit remain in their presence. I wonder which will be the case? These sorts of questions bring back my fond memories of Ray Bradbury.

    George Holz
    SUNY Upstate
    Syracuse, NY

  5. Goodbye my dearest. Like the ancient Mariners you were born to travel into the vast unknown. Like the ancient Vikings you were destined to explore a great new world. Your work as a Surveyor has provided us with Reconnaissance for the future and an understanding of the past. While we morn your passing we also celebrate your life. We look forward to the Opportunity of future journeys, for Man is, by nature, a Pathfinder, always embarking on a new Odyssey. The journey to Mars has been hard fought and many of your kindred were lost on their perilous trek. Your loss is particularly difficult, as you have become a true member of our family and though your physical body may have succumbed, your Spirit will live on in our memories forever. Though we are mournful now, our Curiosity, like the Phoenix, will rise again from the proverbial ashes as a new generation of explorers carries on the mission of exploration.

  6. Maybe a lot of you are too young to remember this, but when I was a teenager, there were three flights to the Moon in particular that fed the imaginative spirit (pun intended) of Exploration unlike anything before it. These were the flights of Apollo 15, 16, and 17. With the ability to broadcast live TV from their Lunar Rovers from all the “stations” they visited, it really gave the dwindling numbers of people interested enough to watch a sense of “place.” The Moon was no longer that untouchable orb in the sky or a view from one spot on the surface. Sure there were Apollo landings before that, but the Lunar Rovers allowed us all to “jump on the back” and really join in on the exploration of some pretty interesting “neighborhoods” on the Moon. Thirty years later, Spirit and Opportunity finally gave us that unique perspective again! We’ve all had the opportunity (pun intended again) to start off on a great adventure, “jump on the back and tag along” once more, and head off towards the horizon. We are all indeed fortunate to continue that journey with Opportunity and soon, with Curiousity.
    I for one will really miss you, Spirit! You have truely lived up to your name! Nothing ever seemed to come easy for you, but with each new challenge that you faced, you continued to Discover and thrive. And just like those flights to the Moon so many years ago, you Inspire your creators. You and your twin sister have shown us all once again what true, and pure exploration is all about! You have taken us up to the top of a “mountain” that was initially just over there on the horizon and gave us all a look of what was on the other side. How does it ever get any better that that?!

    Ed Marshall
    San Marcos, CA.

  7. Spirit, you have been a great inspiration for all these years. Some day we will come there in person to revive you.

  8. :'( :'( Farewell, Spirit ! Thanks for providing us with much info about ! We’ll never forget you !! :'( :'(

  9. Oh, come on. When we finally land and colonize we can erect a picket fence around it and go ooh aah. In the meantime, let’s get the next generation Curiosity rover up there and fire laser beams at stuff.

  10. I’m sort of thinking that maybe you should have mentioned in a caption that your top image is photoshopped. Maybe Curiosity can set up a mirror and take a real self-pic and post it on facebook.
    And then (with a nod to @Steve Nerlich), blast it with a laser beam!

  11. You served us well and went far, far beyond the call of duty. And now, there you sit on that cold and distant barren Martian plain – frozen, immobile, powered off. We know you’re a robot – a machine without feelings – but we’re human and we feel for you. Thanks from all of us for blazing the way. Hang tight. We’ll be there soon…

  12. Mostly I echo the comments about Curiosity: Spirit and Opportunity have set such a high standard for any future planetary surface exploration that any significant shortfall is going to be seen as a failure. Curiosity would have to survive for 24 years to be as successful, at least in comparison with the criteria for mission success.

  13. We are gathered here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. But it should be noted that this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.

  14. We are gathered here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. But it should be noted that this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.

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