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Phoenix illustration
Phoenix captured the hearts of many members of the general public thanks to innovative uses of Internet applications like Twitter. (credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

The perils of talking spacecraft

Last month, thousands of people around the world mourned the passing of a noble explorer. A solitary figure who journeyed far from home in the pursuit of science, knowing it would be a one-way journey. An adventurer who, despite the long distances and extreme conditions, kept in touch with all those back home who had even a passing interest in the expedition. Someone who was clearly a great person.

Except this explorer wasn’t a person, but rather a robot. NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander spacecraft attracted considerable public attention—and reactions bordering on sympathy and mourning—when the space agency declared the mission at an end on November 10. As winter approached at the spacecraft’s northern polar landing site, chilling temperatures and reduced power in the waning sunlight spelled the end of the mission: a demise that was inevitable but still disappointing to many.

Over time, Phoenix was imbued with something of a personality: a being with a sense of wonder about its surroundings and the work it did.

Phoenix was hardly the first NASA mission to end, and its end was hardly extraordinary, unlike the valedictory blaze of glory of Galileo as it entered the Jovian atmosphere, or the ignominious end of failed missions like Mars Climate Orbiter or Mars Polar Lander nearly a decade ago. Yet there was, at least anecdotally, a much stronger reaction to the end of Phoenix than of other very successful NASA missions, like Galileo and Magellan, which made a similar fiery entry at the end of its Venus radar-mapping mission. Why is that?

One contributing factor, if not the major one, was that Phoenix has established a relationship of sorts with the public. Throughout the mission, from landing through its end, Phoenix—or, rather, its project team here on Earth—provided first-person updates through a service called Twitter. For the uninitiated, Twitter is what’s called a “microblogging” service: it allows users to post brief notes about their activities. Originally intended to allow people to answer the question “What are you doing?”, people today use it for all varieties of communications—provided they can be crammed into Twitter’s 140-character limit for each message. On Twitter, brevity is not just the soul of wit, it’s an essential requirement.

The Phoenix team could have simply used Twitter to provide just-the-facts updates about the mission, perhaps with links to official press releases and statements from JPL or the University of Arizona, which ran the mission. And, in fact, that was the original plan, as an Arizona Daily Star article reported last month. However, over time, Phoenix was imbued with something of a personality: a being with a sense of wonder about its surroundings and the work it did. Moreover, Phoenix’s presence on Twitter was interactive: besides posting updates about its work, “it” answered questions posed by fellow Twitter users about the mission and its work.

As a public relations and communications tool, the use of Twitter was a masterstroke. It enabled the mission to reach out to a broad and growing audience—Twitter’s user base is now estimated to be several million people—most of whom would not consider themselves space enthusiasts but had at least some degree of curiosity about Phoenix. Additionally, Phoenix’s use of Twitter generated a lot of additional attention in not just technology media, who saw this as an innovative use of what might otherwise seem a silly tool—just how important is it to be able to communicate in 140-character chunks, anyhow?—but in the broader mainstream press as well. In fact, Phoenix may have done as much to raise the awareness of Twitter among the general public as Twitter did in promoting Phoenix.

So for those people who “followed” Phoenix on Twitter—over 40,000 do now, a number that continues to grow even after the end of the mission—and to a lesser extent elsewhere online, like the social networking site Facebook, the spacecraft became more than just a mass of metal and electronics, sitting on a desolate world tens of millions of kilometers away. Phoenix instead became something closer to a person: not someone you know personally, but instead someone you know of, like a famous athlete or actor (although one probably had a better chance of getting their questions answered via Twitter with Phoenix than via fan mail to a celebrity!) And just as people mourn the passing of a famous personality, some people reacted similarly when NASA declared the Phoenix mission to be at an end.

Phoenix instead became something closer to a person: not someone you know personally, but instead someone you know of, like a famous athlete or actor.

Some might argue that the concept of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects of any kind is hardly new. That is true: for example, for centuries sailing vessels have been referred to in the female gender. And who hasn’t uttered encouraging words to try and coax a recalcitrant car to start, or hurled a stream of invective at a computer after it crashed? But when we do that, it’s more of a stress-release mechanism for us, not an attempt to communicate. We don’t expect that car or computer to respond or otherwise acknowledge those words. This time, though, Phoenix was talking to, and interacting with, us.

While effective from a promotional standpoint, is this approach healthy for space exploration in the long run? One problem is that the attention focused on Phoenix itself meant less attention on towards the people involved in the mission. Phoenix would not have been possible without the hundreds of scientists and engineers who built and operated it and analyzed the data it returned, but for many the mission appeared to begin and end with the spacecraft itself.

A bigger concern, though, is the effect on future human exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Phoenix demonstrated that the public could develop an emotional attachment to a robotic spacecraft that communicated like a human—up to the point of mourning its “death”. Will people feel a greater attachment to future astronauts who return to the Moon and explore elsewhere beyond Earth? (Assuming that they can communicate as freely as Phoenix, and one wonders what NASA’s public affairs office would think of that.) If it’s not that much stronger—if people feel a similar level of connection to a robotic explorer as a human one—will people be willing to accept the increased cost and risk of human space exploration if they don’t get more out of it?

This cuts to the core debate about sending humans to space. Space advocates rightly note that humans are much more capable than even the most advanced robotic spacecraft: the field geology that Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, have performed over nearly the last five years might have been done by a single properly-equipped geologist in a matter of weeks. However, science is not the sole or necessarily the prime reason space agencies send humans into space: other factors, from national prestige to the emotional thrill of exploration, play a role in why governments are willing to spend as much as they do on human spaceflight versus robotic alternatives. Robotic spaceflight already provides national prestige: look at the pride China and India have demonstrated with their first-ever lunar orbiters. Robotic spaceflight hasn’t yet demonstrated that same emotional connection with the public as human spaceflight has—but Phoenix may be a step in that direction.

Proponents of taxpayer-funded human space exploration should see this as an opportunity to refine their arguments for why people, and not increasingly anthropomorphized robots, should explore the solar system.

Other missions are likely to follow in NASA’s footsteps: a number have already set up similar Twitter accounts, with some, like the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission set for launch next year, even adopting that same first-person voice. This could be a passing fad—today’s novelty becomes tomorrow’s banality. However, simple text-based interaction is likely to be eventually supplanted by images and more immersive technology. NASA has even been tasked by Congress in the fiscal year 2009 authorization bill signed into law this fall to study methods of “participatory exploration” to better engage the public (see “Virtual reality and participatory exploration”, The Space Review, June 25, 2007). That participation is designed involve both robotic and human missions, but if it becomes so effective with robots, will the public support still be there for humans?

This wouldn’t mean the end of people going to space: private human spaceflight, with people paying their own way for tourism or other applications, can survive and thrive, in just the same way people travel around the world to sightsee rather than read books and watch documentaries. But proponents of taxpayer-funded human space exploration should see this as an opportunity to refine their arguments for why people, and not increasingly anthropomorphized robots, should explore the solar system—even if those explanations take more than 140 characters.


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