Well Done Little Rover

Posted Thursday July 21, 2011 by John Gunders in |

I’ve posted a few times over the years about a fairly recent habit of NASA’s to personify its robotic exploration probes. It started most overtly when the Mars Phoenix Probe got its own Twitter feed, and due to the 140 character constraint, the publicist tended to tweet in the first person. I wrote about that here.

Well this morning my RSS feed turned up a speech by John Callas, project manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover project, marking the formal end of Mars rover Spirit’s mission (you might recall that Spirit, 2210 days into its 90 day mission and irretrievably stuck in soft sand, became unable to orient its solar panels for maximum power, and succumed to the Martian winter. Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, continues roving).

Callas’s speech in many ways is a eulogy to Spirit, and it ends with a heart-felt “Well done little rover. Sleep in peace.” Read the whole thing here. I suspect this tendency to treat robots as people (or maybe faithful pets) comes from a implicit need to disguise the costs of a mission that many people might consider unnecessary*. It has certainly made the mission seem more accessible to more people than it might have, were it couched in dry, scientific (and less emotionally loaded) terms.

You cannot deny the value of the science returned by the rovers. What is less definable is whether the implied personalisation has affected people’s perception of the mission. In times of budgetry constraint, I certainly hope so.

*The mission cost $820 million. By comparison, the Iraq war (to date) has cost $788 billion.

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