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Precious Cargo

When the Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars in 2004, each carried a couple of treasures from home. One was a DVD bearing the names of four million people who signed up for the trip. The other wasn’t made public until after they landed: pieces of the World Trade Center in New York, which fell in a terrorist attack 20 years ago today.

One of the contractors on the mission was based in Manhattan, just blocks from the Twin Towers. The company was building devices to clean off spots on interesting rocks for the rovers’ instruments to examine. The company wanted to honor the victims of the attack. So a NASA engineer suggested fashioning metal from the fallen buildings to form the shields to protect the devices.

The company obtained some bits of aluminum, which were molded into the proper shape. An American flag was painted on the completed shields.

Spirit and Opportunity discovered that conditions could have been comfortable for life at both of their landing sites in the distant past. Spirit operated for more than six years before it got stuck in a sand dune and went silent. Opportunity ambled on for eight years longer. It covered almost 28 miles before a dust storm blacked out the Sun, depriving it of power.

In the cold, dry conditions on Mars, the expired rovers could remain in good condition for millennia — perhaps allowing future explorers to find precious reminders on Mars of a terrible day on Earth.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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