How a Robot on Mars Improved My Attitude

Finding a kindred spirt in Oppy, a Red Planet rover with ALS-like characteristics

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by Dagmar Munn |

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I’ll admit that because I live with ALS, some of my past “Human vs. Automation” experiences have been, um, less than perfect. Touchpads that open automated doors don’t always work for me, and voice activation software doesn’t recognize my commands. But now, I have a new sense of empathy for the robotic gizmos infiltrating our world.

What changed my attitude? Watching “Good Night Oppy,” the newly released documentary streaming on Amazon Prime.

The documentary follows Opportunity, a Mars exploration rover affectionately dubbed Oppy by its creators and scientists at NASA. Oppy was expected to live for only 90 days on the Red Planet, but went on to continue operating for 15 years. That feat alone won my respect.

Beyond managing to outlive its predicted expiration date, I noted several more similarities between the robot’s plight and the challenges of living with ALS.

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Slow and steady

As Oppy navigated across the planet, its movements were slow, methodical, and often jerky. Immediately, I could relate, knowing its movements were similar to mine. It operated in a version of what I call my manual mode.

When Oppy’s handlers on Earth sent up a command to, say, “Move forward and stop near a boulder,” that simple command involved hundreds of minicommands — much like the multitude of split-second mental calculations I have to make just to successfully approach, turn, back up, and finally sit in a chair.

We have support

Then there was the fact that Oppy was alone and isolated. That’s exactly what many ALS patients feel, from the moment they receive their diagnosis on through the progression of their symptoms.

But we patients forget that like Oppy, we have teams of supporters dedicated to helping, figuring out problems, and offering options. While the rover has NASA scientists in its corner, we have ALS clinic staff, ALS Association care coordinators, caregivers, friends, and family cheering us on and supporting our well-being.

One at a time

I wrote in this column about feeling as if we patients are alone and stranded on a hostile planet, describing the inspiration I gained from the movie “The Martian.”

The movie taught me that even when it seems the odds are against me and Murphy’s law is creating setbacks, I can tap into my resourcefulness, resiliency, and optimism. I just need to tackle my problems — one at a time.

So what do I have in common with a 5-foot, 2-inch robot named Opportunity that was sent to the distant planet of Mars? Turns out quite a lot. And the emotions that make me human, like having patience, perseverance, and a sense of purpose, will help me continue to live well with ALS.

I encourage you to add this documentary to your viewing list. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

Note: ALS News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of ALS News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ALS.


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