Our Favorite Martians

For the scientists and engineers who drive the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Mars exploration is personal.

Driver Scott Maxwell uses 3-D goggles to view the Martian surface on a computer, a key way to identify obstacles. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Air & Space Magazine

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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.”

The mystique of the rovers has even touched Native American culture. Tim McCoy, a geologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, has been on the rover team for the last four years. He’s also a citizen of the Miami tribe from the Midwest. In their Algonquian language, explains McCoy, the Miami confer “animacy” on certain beings, such as people, animals, some plants, and ome natural phenomena, such as thunder. “Anthropomorphizing is not the right word,” he says. “It’s hard to describe. Some things have a living force to them, a spirit of sorts.”The Miami elders decide what types of modern technology have animacy. Cars do. Trains don’t. “I had heard Janet Vertesi talk in a rover team meeting about the boundary in her mind between people and machines,” says McCoy. “She was sort of struggling with that. But from a Native American sense, there’s no struggle there, no apparent conflict.”

McCoy and a Miami tribesman colleague who is a linguist at Miami University of Ohio debated whether the rovers had animacy. They went to a tribal elder and described what a rover is and how it works with humans. The elder pondered the question, then proclaimed that the rovers have animacy. A group of about 20 undergraduates from theMiami tribe at the university then named the rovers “neehpikalaankwa keeyosia,” or “the red star wanderer.” “To the Miami,” says McCoy, “the wanderer performs an important task as he or she gathers useful information during wanderings and brings it back for the community.”

McCoy shared the story with the rover team.“They weren’t surprised. You really feel like this thing is an extension of you. When one of them dies, there’s going to be a tangible loss and a period of grieving.”

End-of-life questions make anyone close to the rovers uneasy. Yet with Spirit’s recent stranding, the scientists are often asked about the inevitable.

“They talk about them as geriatric,” says Vertesi. “Amnesia. Arthritis. All very human experiences. But to mention a rover death....The pressure to preserve the rovers is huge.”

John Grant is practical about the demise of the probes, but says they’re not there yet. “I know it will happen someday, but I don’t want to think about the eventual end of the mission,” he says. “With the rovers, it’s open-ended. You don’t want to let go of them.”

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