Where old friends go when the mission is over

Recently I visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the Mall for the first time. I lost myself in the aviation section for a couple of hours, learning all sorts of interesting things about the history of our airlines, flight attendants, airmail, aircraft development, and even a board game for instrument flying!

Then I went into the exhibit dedicated to our planets and was immediately drawn to the Mars section. It featured three examples of our Mars rover lineage, increasing in size from Sojourner to the Mars Exploration Rovers to the Mars Science Laboratory rover.

“Huh,” I thought, “They didn’t bother to mock up solar panels for the Mars Exploration Rover.”

I stared at its blank grey deck for a few more seconds before I remembered where else I’d seen a Mars Exploration Rover with no solar panels: at JPL, where I worked on the planning team for the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. While Opportunity was at Mars, we had a twin rover here on Earth in the Mars Yard (or the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory) where we could try out command sequences before sending them to Mars. That rover, too, did not have solar panels because it was powered by a cable that plugged into the wall.

I squinted more closely at the display and found that it identified this object as the “Surface System Test Bed” (SSTB) which meant that IT IS EXACTLY THE TEST ROVER that we used at JPL during mission operations. Confirmed: in 2019, which was after both Mars Exploration Rover missions had ended, the MER SSTB was sent to the Smithsonian.

And what better place, really, for such a unique artifact? Even if it totally took me by surprise. I think the other museum-goers were surely puzzled by the sight of a woman standing in front of the Mars rovers and crying.

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  1. Ben Speros said,

    May 1, 2024 at 11:40 am

    (Knew it already.)

    You weren’t the only one who cried when seeing this rover at the Smithsonian.

    In 2007, my wife, 4-year old daughter and I took a trip to California. My daughter was already a Mars rover “fanatic” by that point (she had a Mars Rover birthday cake for her 4th birthday), so a trip to JPL was on the agenda. In addition to seeing some amazing things, and meeting one of the Cassini propulsion engineers, we got to see the MER test-bed room “sand box”, along with the test rover. I think she was more excited about it than she was about meeting the princesses at Disneyland the day before. We have a great photo of her smiling, with her JPL nametag on, flushed cheeks (it was warm that day), with the rover in the background.

    Since then, we’ve followed Spirit and Opportunity, woke up in the early AM to watch the landing of Curiosity, and have cheered on Perseverance and Ingenuity. We even bawled our eyes out at the Cassini “Grand Finale” tribute video from JPL.

    Last May, we picked my daughter up from college in Washington DC and decided on a side-trip to the Air and Space Museum. And there was the rover again. It wasn’t until I read the signage that I realized it was the exact same one we had seen sixteen-years earlier and on the opposite of the country. We got another picture, this time with my daughter much taller, and the rover much cleaner, than they had been when they had last met.

    A great moment.

    Thank you for your work on the project!

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