The Rover and the Datsun

Cory and I know exactly how Spirit feels: bogged down, helpless, and in need of the type of intervention that could be considered a near-miracle.

On Sunday, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit completed its sixth year on the planet. It landed on Jan. 3, 2004, while its sister rover, Opportunity, touched down on Jan. 24 that year.

During the six years, says a NASA web site LOCATED HERE, “Spirit has found evidence of a steamy and violent environment on ancient Mars that is quite different from the wet and acidic past documented by Opportunity, which has been operating successfully as it explores halfway around the planet.”

In April 2009, Spirit was driving backwards across a seemingly safe region called Troy. It started its exploration with six wheels, but since 2006 the right front hasn’t worked, so must go in reverse and drag the bum wheel. Suddenly the soil crust broke and Spirit’s good wheels sank into what the space agency calls “a bright-toned, slippery sand underneath.”

It’s been stuck ever since.

[View of Spirit’s predicament. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

*****

One spring in the 1970s, my wife and I were driving around the Millard County desert of western Utah. Rather, I was driving and she was wishing our little yellow Datsun was back on a paved road. We had turned off U.S. 50-6 about ten miles west of Delta, then bounced a couple of miles southeast on a dirt route. Without a problem we reached our destination, the Gunnison Massacre Monument, a memorial to the men of an Army survey expedition who were killed by Indians in 1853. The site is close to the Sevier River.

We had a choice: retrace our steps to the highway or continue following the route as it meandered beside the river and then curved in the general direction of Delta. I was driving, so we didn’t head back. We kept on the dusty road as it approached the river.

Within a few minutes the car was fishtailing strangely. Then an awful realization hit: the Sevier had flooded, soaking the desert, turning the landscape into mud, and then dust had blown over the gunk. What looked like a dirt road was only a light crust. If we could make it up a slight hill, I felt, we would be above the high-water mark and get beyond the mud. The car slipped from side to side but plowed ahead.

“Stop!” cried Cory.

I did. I explained we had to get higher — but when we started the wheels sank in. I tried backing the vehicle and lunging it forward, again and again, and we only burrowed deeper. We were forced to quit when the axles were on the ground.

I knew I was in trouble, deservedly, as all husbands have been since Adam. But she was more concerned than angry. We shoved the doors open, climbed out, and saw what a hideous mess we were in. There was no choice but to abandon the car and walk. Before we had taken a few steps our shoes were basketballs of gunk.

We slogged back to the monument, a stone pylon with a bronze plaque honoring Captain John Gunnison and his party. There, the road was dry. Shaking, kicking and scraping our feet, we started on the hike back to the highway.

We can’t just leave the car here, she said. I said you’d need a bulldozer to get it out now.

We would have to hitchhike into Delta and then find a way back to Salt Lake City. No tow truck could reach the Datsun without getting mired itself. The car would have to sit there until the mud hardened, maybe in a few weeks. I would return to Delta and hire a tow truck. At that point the car would be hard to extract.

Cory was frightened, hiking out in the middle of nowhere. I was discouraged.

Suddenly a truck hauling a flatbed trailer jolted into view, driving down the road toward us. I wanted to flag it down but she said the driver might be dangerous. It was nearly past when she changed her mind, and I waved my arms. The truck stopped.

The driver was a middle-aged man whose sunburned face told of hard outdoors work. Engine idling, he heard our story. He was there himself because of the mud in a nearby part of the desert. Earlier he had been doing some work with a bulldozer (the area is cut by multiple drainage canals and maybe he was working on one of them). It had become bogged down in the mud and now he had returned to extract it. He would be happy to help us with the Datsun.

We climbed in the cab with him and he drove back past the monument and toward our car. He backed the truck so that the trailer went as near the car as he dared. Then he dragged a heavy chain toward the car. It wasn’t long enough. He backed a bit farther. The truck tires sank in the mud and it too was stuck.

He needed to use the bulldozer, he said in a no-big-deal voice, and set off on foot. We saw the ‘dozer in the distance, something we hadn’t noticed before. Black diesel smoke blew from its stack and he worked it out of the mire. Soon it rumbled up and he easily dragged the truck out.

Then he bladed a new road to the car, sagebrush and gunk turning over and exposing the dry soil below. Our friend lay on his stomach in the mud and dug until he could loop the chain around the Datsun’s rear axle. Then he restarted the bulldozer and dragged our car onto the dry road.

He refused our offers of money. We drove back to the highway and home to Salt Lake City, the car shaking as big clots of dirt flopped off. Later I ordered a subscription to the Deseret News for him. Over the past 35 years we have forgotten his name, but we’ll never forget his kindness.

*****

In late December project managers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, tried to power Spirit out of the fix. The right-front wheel revived but then stopped again. Another wheel failed, an electrical short developed, and Spirit sank a bit deeper.

The latest update, posted Monday, says, “Spirit remains embedded at the location called ‘Troy’ on the west side of Home Plate. Attempts to extricate Spirit have been complicated by the loss of functionality in the right-rear wheel and the lack of meaningful functionality with the right-front wheel.”

If the rover can’t get into a better orientation to soak up the scanty solar rays, its power will fade and the electronics could freeze during the coming Martian winter. The rover will die.

What it needs is a bulldozer to come rumbling out of a neighboring crater. Or, more realistically, a near-miracle of luck and maneuvering. Let’s hope.

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