In the 60’s, NASA inspired an entire generation with its race to the moon. It was a tangible, exciting, and heavily covered story that reached every television set. In a way I wish I could have been around to experience such an accomplishment. From what I’m told, those who were around felt connected to the story. They knew the astronaut’s names. There was a massive human element to all this ’science stuff.’
According to NASA, it will be ten years before the next moon mission. The current missions aren’t as glamorous so as a result, they don’t receive much press. They are, however, just as important and exciting.
NASA has found a way to engage both the science community and other more casual followers of the space program such as myself: they personified their Martian and galactic robot explorers with Twitter.
The concept is simple. An earthling tweets what the little robotic explorer is experiencing and doing - and does so in the ‘voice’ of the robot.
This is successful on two levels. First, it provides the quick and simple communication that is inherent with Twitter. I was more informed on this particular mission than any other mission in my lifetime. I didn’t have to read through boring press releases to get to the juicy stuff. The tweets were digestible and informative.
But even more importantly; beyond all the science jibba jabba was the personification of the Mars Lander itself.
I watched a Star Wars science documentary earlier tonight. It analyzed the technology of the Star Wars universe and how it is/could be applied in our world. In truth, several of the technologies seen in original trilogy were the inspiration for modern day scientists and engineers. Possibly one of the biggest breakthroughs was when Lucas gave R2-D2 and C-3PO distinct personalities.
He made them more than droids. He made them characters. Characters with traits and personalities. This critical element allows us to sympathize with them; empathize with them. The field of robotics is inspired by the human element Lucas gave R2 and C-3PO in 1977. In 2008, NASA applied this formula to @MarsPhoenix, @CassiniSaturn, @Marsrovers, and @Marssciencelab and went beyond the entertainment value. They have engaged a community and created a following in the name of science and exploration.
Unfortunately, the engaging human element became even more real when our good friend @MarsPhoenix sent his last tweet. The Martian winter finally caught up with him.
We all knew it was coming.
He prepared us with an explanation of what he was facing, what it would do to his circuits, and how it’s unlikely he’ll be able to wake up when the seasons turn warm again (approx 12 months from now, since Martian seasons are twice as long Earth’s).
He took enough time to say his farewells. He even held a user submitted epitaph contest. When he had more to say than the 140 character Twitter limit would allow, he guest blogged on Gizmodo. Knowing his ultimate fate, he wrote a final entry that was only to be posted after his time had come to an end. The article can be found below.
I’ll admit, it got me a little teary eyed. This was a little bot I felt like I had come to know. I sent him messages wishing him luck. But most importantly, I learned from him.
This is about connection. This is about engagement. And NASA just hit it out of the park.
Phoenix guest blogging on Giz:
Hello World, Phoenix Lander Here
This is What Landing On Mars Feels Like
Martian Ice Is Why I’m Alive and Why I’m Dying
This is My Farewell Transmission From Mars
Phoenix Epitaph Contest
NASA Explorers on Twitter