A US first in space — and still going eight years later 

American self-esteem has taken a beating lately so we could use some good news, and now we have some, even though it arrived from 36 million miles, maybe more.

The Mars Rover Opportunity, after a perilous three-year and 13-mile drive, has reached the rim of the Endeavour Crater and set up shop on an overlook called Spirit Point, named after its now-moribund twin, the Rover Spirit.

Opportunity has traveled more than 20 miles on Mars, which may not seem like much until you realize that when the two rovers were sent to Mars in the summer of 2003, they were expected to be finished and dead the following April.

Eight years later Opportunity is still going, poking, prodding, sampling and photographing the Martian surface. Spirit got bogged down in a bad spot with little sunlight to recharge its batteries — but not until this past March. Not a bad working life for something expected to last only three months.

The success of this mission is due to the hard work, dedication — and let’s be honest about it — the brilliance of NASA and its contractors engineers, programmers, astronomers and technicians.

From the rim of the 14-mile crater, Opportunity can study older materials and terrain than the previous crater it explored. Rather than having Opportunity descend into the crater, NASA is thinking of having the golf cart-size robot explore the rim, where the Mars Orbiter spotted clay minerals that could only have been formed in an early and wetter period.

The scientists hope to find a potentially habitable environment that may still support microbial life — life, in short — on another planet. Our manned space program seems to be on indefinite hiatus but our robots are out there exploring to their motherboards’ content.

If there ever is a settlement on Mars, we have the candidates for the first two national monuments — the  Opportunity and the Spirit.

Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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