Our Favorite Martians
For the scientists and engineers who drive the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Mars exploration is personal.
- By Michael Klesius
- Air & Space magazine, March 2010
(Page 3 of 5)
“It’s hard for us to understand the experience of these robots that are so far away from us,” says Vertesi. “ So the scientists and engineers do the ‘rover dance.’ It’s a series of gestures that imitate the rover actions: unfurling of arms and rotating of wrists; splaying of arms behind them like solar panels. Always very aware of where the sun is. These people have a semi physical presence on Mars. One scientist got up and was talking about an observation and he began to shuffle backward…and then he said, ‘Janet, get your camera. I’m turning into the rover!’ ”
Driver John Wright confesses to some of it. “The thing I always notice is that I have to mentally visualize what the [rover] arm is doing. And I have to use my left arm. When I’m talking about it, I start with my right arm, and then I say, Wait, I have to use my left arm, because the shoulder joint’s on the left front side of the rover, and the elbow sticks out to the left. So you’re sticking your thumb out, wrapping the arm around. And turning the wheels. There’s definitely a lot of hand-waving.”
The Pancams are the eyes, says Vertesi, and they’re often talked about as such. “The rover team says, ‘We’ll look around a bit.’ When they look down, they say, ‘We’re looking between our feet.’ It pulls that rover down into the human space.”
And it sends driver Scott Max well up into the Martian space, thanks to pairs of cameras on each rover thatrecordimagesin3-D.“When I’m looking through these 3-D goggles, I’m looking at the Mars I would see if I were standing there and looking with my own eyes,” says Maxwell. “Then I can use all the stuff evolution put into my brain to think about that 3-D world...shape of the terrain, the height of obstacles, and so on, so that I can plan a safe path for the rover. It’s surprising how many dangers and insights pop out at you when you look at the terrain in 3-D that just aren’t apparent in2-D.Trywalking around for a day with one eye closed and you’ll see what I mean.”
Human-robot interactions create very real bonds. U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan grow attached to their comrade robots, which sniff out improvised explosive devices and often lose their mechanical limbs in the process. The machines get names, faux Purple Hearts, battle field “promotions,” and major repairs—or somber memorials.
And there are increasing numbers of robots at home. A group of scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which offers one of the nation’s top two robotics programs, recently produced a paper, “‘My Roomba Is Rambo’: Intimate Home Appliances.” Apparently the lowly vacuuming robot called the Roomba generates rover-like devotion. “The majority of our participants described Roomba as some form of household companion with lifelike properties,” the authors wrote, “such as ‘a helpful assistant,’ ‘a pet like being,’ and ‘a valuable family member.’ Perhaps somewhat extremely, three participants actually listed their Roombas (including their names and ages) as family members when we asked them to provide demographic information…. Eighteen participants felt that Roomba had intentions, feelings, and unique characteristics. One participant…felt that each unit had a unique personality although he was well aware that technology had not advanced that far….”
These military and civilian admirers get to touch the objects of their affection. By contrast, the JPL controllers get at best within 34 million miles of Spirit and Opportunity, once every two years.
“We imagine how the rover might feel,” says John Grant, a geologist and chair of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum. Grant is one of 14 chairpersons of the Science Operations Working Group, responsible for leading day-to-day science planning for the rovers. He’s worked with the rovers since 2002. “I don’t think of them as pets,” says Grant. “And I don’t think of them as people. But I definitely give them personalities.” He thinks their mobility has something to do with it. “The Phoenix and Viking landers were tremendous successes. But they were stationary, so maybe they’re more mechanical. Spirit and Opportunity, they’re more like the Little Engines That Could, because they’ve done so many things we’ve asked of them that are beyond original expectations.”