Spirit, one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's rovers tasked with exploring Mars, is about to die and its life is worth celebrating.
Originally designed and programmed to roam the Martian surface for a mere 90 days, the craft has lived over six years on the hostile terrain of our red neighbor. During that time, Spirit performed its task admirably.
It has collected incredible findings and sent back absolutely stunning, serenely beautiful images of the Red Planet. The data collected by the rover has already answered a number of questions about Mars, and in turn created tenfold more questions to be answered by future missions of exploration.
In a time of national budgetary crisis, science is often one of the first categories of spending volunteered for the chopping block. Many Americans are asking whether or not NASA is really necessary. The previous administration's goal of establishing a permanent Moon base by 2020 now seems ridiculous. Few people see any material benefit from the work done aboard the International Space Station. Questions are often raised as to the point of space exploration in general.
NASA is viewed as obsolete, a relic of the Cold War that is a decade or two away from being outmoded by commercial spaceflight. With the Space Shuttle program about to come to a close and no replacement technology available to immediately replace the shuttle fleet, these arguments have gained steam.
The story of Spirit serves as a brilliant example of what the organization is still capable of doing. A machine built to function for 90 days has survived for over 23 times that and has absolutely refused to die. It's been stuck in a rough spot of Martian soil for months, and has finally given up the fight. It will remain stationary and functional until the red dust of Mars builds on the craft's solar panels. The soil will thicken to the point where solar energy can no longer provide enough charge, and Spirit will, after a bountiful and successful mission, pass away.
Spirit's life was an absolute triumph of science, engineering and human ingenuity, and it shows exactly the kind of work that NASA is still capable of. While Spirit may have to die, NASA does not and should not suffer the same fate. NASA deserves to exist, and deserves to be properly funded by the American government and supported by the American people.
The research and development capabilities NASA provides are too important to the long-term economic recovery and national pride of the United States to let any short-term damage come to the organization. It certainly could use a restructuring, a good deal of self-examination and some new and talented public relations staff, but it should not be allowed to be underfunded to the point of impotence.
NASA must learn from the Spirit rover and continue to carry out its mission, even while the situation looks bleak and, sometimes, impossible.