Opportunity of a Lifetime | by Erin McKenzie

The brutal cold of that winter was finally easing, though Caroline’s routine wasn’t changed, only made marginally more bearable. She could sit on the back patio, eyes turned to the stars, without the windchill making it difficult to breathe and making her little world feel smaller than it already was. In the end, it didn’t matter if it was a blissfully warm 80 degrees, or a freezing -15; when the stars appeared, twinkling into view one at a time as the sun sank below the horizon, Caroline was unfailingly sitting on the back porch and watching, as though she could track the path of an intrepid little explorer lightyears away.

Or better yet, beg it to respond to NASA. 

It wasn’t exactly lightyears, if she was being technical, but 187 million miles may as well have been. The numbers were nearly too large to comprehend, but she had been pouring over the data for years. She could picture all of those miles just as plainly as she could feel them pressing the chambers of her heart outward. 

Her career with NASA started right out of college, where she had an engineering degree and a dream to see the stars. Her role had been minimal when she started, but now, she was as invested and involved as the next engineer and scientist. Maybe even moreso, but who could say? The absolute love of her life was on Mars and currently not responding to data requests being sent from Earth. Her days were spent sending those requests, trying to examine the last data packets they had received, working with another team who was studying the recent windstorms on the red planet. It was all hands on deck at Mission Control, a room stacked with people and computers, large screens and so much hope for the future. 

Caroline met her husband there many years ago. Daniel was perfect in every way, down to the nearly literal stars in his eyes. 

This mission had been the backbone to every moment she spent discovering who she was. 

It was now February, and they’d had no communication since June. The time was coming quickly (too quickly) where they were going to have to make a decision and call an end to the mission.

She knew she wasn’t ready for that. Her entire career at NASA had been this single mission. Years of hard work and love and her entire heart were poured into it, and she knew she wasn’t ready to just agree that it was over and done with. It meant that they would all be expected to move on, begin work on another project, continue with their lives as though they hadn’t been changed so completely.

Her phone rang, and her eyes closed, knowing exactly who it was, exactly what news they would give her that she wanted to ignore. “Hello?”

“Hey Caroline. You might want to head over to Mission Control. They’re going to call it.”

There was nowhere else she could be when this moment came, even though she drove her truck through the California night with tears in her eyes. Someone met her in the parking lot; her entire team met her inside the building. It was February twelfth, and in just an hour, they would be sending their final communication to the rover on Mars.

NASA tried. Caroline would never feel like they’d given up too soon, no matter how broken her heart was. Over the last eight months, they had sent more than a thousand commands in attempts to reestablish communication. They held out hope that the rover could have survived the dust storm that had taken place just hours before the last transmission they received from Mars, which was a simple “My battery is low, and it is getting dark.” (‘Simple’ was the wrong way to say it. A whole burst of data had been sent, but all of it more or less translated to this one sentence).

The room grew quiet as their last transmission, their last attempt at reestablishing contact, and really, their farewell to the nearly fifteen year long mission was a recording of Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” They were nothing if not a sentimental bunch. Once it was sent, they waited. Carlone knew that depending on the positions of both planets in the sky, it could take anywhere from four to twenty minutes for their communication to reach Mars, which meant it could be up to forty minutes for them to hear anything back.

They all knew the chance of a reply was too slim to hope for, but they waited anyway.

She looked around the room, realizing that somewhere along the way in this journey, the faces around her had become more than friends and more than coworkers. They were family. She had attended numerous weddings, birthdays, baby showers.  Most of the people there had attended her own wedding.

“Hey!” Daniel rushed to her side, wearing a polo with the NASA logo embroidered over the pocket. Since launch, he’d been reassigned to the Mars 2020 mission- another rover that would land on the opposite side of Mars in just over two years. He was clearly working, but must have gotten the same call she did. 

They were twenty minutes into the wait, and she buried herself in the hug he offered. 

It wasn’t much longer before Opportunity, the little rover meant to last just three months and travel eleven hundred yards, was declared mission complete after an incredible and beautiful fifteen years and twenty-eight miles.

Caroline clapped. She hugged and congratulated her coworkers. They were promised that NASA would make grief counselors available to them as early as the following day.

And then she went home. Daniel drove, leaving her truck to be picked up sometime later.

Then, she sobbed. She cried for the rover that she loved so dearly. She cried for the end of an era, the end of a mission. She cried for the end of such a magical, incredible piece of her life. She cried from pride of her team, of Opportunity, she cried for humanity’s unending reach for the stars.

Daniel poured a glass of wine for each of them, which they shared on the back patio, their eyes turned to the sky. 

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Erin is a writer and photographer living in Los Angeles with her cat. In addition to online publications, she has been published in two traveling exhibits, “Love Letters in Light” and “Messengers of Memory.” She spends her spare time trying to turn into a mermaid. She donates photography to military families, is a total space nerd, and is currently working on her first novel.