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The Lessons of Opportunity


I love reading stories about people achieving their goals.  After all, that’s what I help folks do every day!  If you’ve been reading my letters, you know that whenever I find a good story, I tend to share it.  Usually, the stories I find are fairly recent, but occasionally, I learn about something that happened some time ago.  Such is the case with this story – one of the most unique tales about “achieving your goals” that I’ve ever come across.

Because it happened both some time ago…and on a planet far, far away. 

The hill was only thirty centimeters high, but it was enough to keep some of the world’s best scientists spinning their wheels.  Literally.

On April 25, 2005, NASA’s Opportunity rover – a mobile robot exploring the surface of Mars – was traversing the tiniest speed bump imaginable when its wheels became stuck in a sand dune.  The dune was less than a foot high, but try as it might, the rover just couldn’t get over it.  Opportunity’s wheels continually slipped and spun, until finally they became buried hub-deep in the fine Martian sand.

For the scientists and engineers back on Earth, this tiny speed bump had become a serious obstacle.  An obstacle to a dream that was several years – and $400 million dollars – in the making.  If NASA couldn’t free it, the rover would never be able to complete its mission.  But on a planet more than 208 million miles away, it’s not like they could simply call a tow truck.

So, NASA set to work.  After a lot of planning, they figured out the best way to get Opportunity moving forward again so it could reach its goals.  Right away, they determined that the worst thing they could do was simply throw more power into the problem.  While it could have been possible to divert maximum power to the wheels, the engineers knew it was too risky.  For one, it might not work.  Or they might free the rover from one dune only to plow it into another.  Worst of all, they knew they might burn up too much of Opportunity’s power for the short term, leaving too little for the long term.  In other words, simply “gunning it” and hoping for the best wasn’t going to work.  Neither would spinning the wheels – that had already been done, and we all know the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

That left NASA with only one option.  Since it was just a few centimeters that got Opportunity into this mess, it would require a few centimeters to get it out.

Over the next several weeks, the engineers directed the rover to turn its wheels back and forth, spinning just a few rotations at a time.  Every turn was planned; every rotation monitored.  To a casual observer, it might have seemed that nothing was happening.  But bit by bit, the rover was able to move forward, even if the moment was interminable to the naked eye.  Between May 13 and June 4, Opportunity’s tires “churned 192 meters (629 feet) worth of wheel rotations before gaining enough traction to actually move one meter.”1 In other words, it took about twenty days for the rover to move three feet!

It was a painstaking process of making simple adjustments.  But it worked!  On June 6, NASA proudly announced that the crisis had been averted and Opportunity was once again on the move.  Furthermore, the scientists now had a better understanding of why it got stuck in the first place so they could make sure it never happened again.  The result?  The rover explored Mars for another thirteen years – when it had only been designed to serve for 90 days.  That meant its lifespan was fifty-five times longer than expected.  To this day, it’s considered one of the most successful missions in NASA’s entire history.  And all it took was a few small adjustments.

Small…but powerful.

The reason I found this story so inspiring is because it shows two things:

1. Even small hurdles can seem like insurmountable obstacles.
Those hurdles may be due to unexpected life events, like losing a job or a loved one.  They may be due to chronic hardships like a health condition.  They may be due to the fact there are only so many hours in a day, that there are too many expenses to deal with, or a hundred other things.  Either way, there’s no shame in feeling stuck.  Like you’re constantly spinning your wheels yet going nowhere.  I mean, if some of the greatest minds in the world can feel that way, so can we!

2. Any obstacle, no matter how challenging, can be overcome.
That’s because, when our wheels do start spinning, the answer is simple: Make small but meaningful adjustments until we’re back on track.  When it comes to reaching our goals, we don’t have to be Superman.  We don’t have to look for magical solutions.  Neither do we have to throw up our hands in despair.  All we have to do is be patient and thorough.  Day by day, bit by bit, turn by turn…we will get to where we want to be.  And where others see obstacles?

We will see Opportunity.

1 “NASA’s Opportunity Rover Rolls Free on Mars,” NASA, June 6, 2005.  https://mars.nasa.gov/mer/newsroom/pressreleases/20050606a.html
 Information provided by Bill Good Marketing

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