Image: Randall Monroe/xkcd

Why We Love To Anthropomorphize Spaceships

Thursday, the Mercury MESSENGER orbiter became the latest spaceship to live tweet its own death. We’re such suckers for that schtick.

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May 1 2015, 9:00am

Image: Randall Monroe/xkcd

Spaceships are inanimate objects, with no particular opinions about the dangers they face in space. And yet, it seems completely natural to anthropomorphize our robotic space explorers; to imagine them as sentient beings and to project our own hopes and anxieties onto them.

For instance, take this notoriously heartrending comic by xkcd creator Randall Monroe, inspired by the death of the Mars Spirit rover in 2010.

"Spirit" comic. Imag: xkcd/Randall Monroe.

This piece is truly a roundhouse kick in the feels, as debilitating as the Futurama episode "Jurassic Bark" starring Fry's dog. But it also really works because, for whatever reason, people genuinely seem to relate to spacecraft on a more emotional level than other robots, vehicles, and machines.

One of the most interesting manifestations of this trend pops up in the Twitter accounts of space missions, which are frequently written from the first person perspective of robotic explorers. This is a wonderful way to engage with the public with missions, but it can also be emotionally devastating given the bleak fate of most spacecraft.

For example, about a half hour before the MESSENGER orbiter crashed on Mercury this Thursday, it posted the following tweet.

Talk about a gutwrencher. It's impossible not to imagine the poor orbiter, lonely and scared, typing out its final words onto whatever phone was most popular in 2004, the year it launched. What's worse, MESSENGER impacted the far side of Mercury, relative to the Earth, making its final minutes that much lonelier. If that doesn't strike a chord on your heartstrings, nothing will.

Indeed, MESSENGER isn't even the first spacecraft to have live-tweeted its own death, and it certainly wasn't the most melodramatic about it. That award goes to China's Yutu lunar rover. In January 2014, the Yutu published a series of tearjerker posts on its Weibo account, after a malfunction threatened its life.

Whoever was operating Yutu's account milked the situation to the fullest, and even brought up the rover's thoughts about how its "mother"—the Chang'e 3 lander—would react to its death.

"[Chang'e] doesn't know about my problems yet," the Yutu Weibo account said. "If I can't be fixed, everyone please comfort her."

The Yutu also proceeded to reflect on mankind's place in the universe, and the intrinsic danger of outer space exploration. "The sun has fallen, and the temperature is dropping so quickly... to tell you all a secret, I don't feel that sad," it said. "I was just in my own adventure story—and like every hero, I encountered a small problem."

Fortunately, this emotionally manipulative rover actually did end up recovering from the malfunction, though much like the Mars Spirit rover, it was rendered immobile.

Not all glitching spacecraft are so lucky, however. Just look at the ongoing saga of the Philae lander, which Motherboard UK editor Victoria Turk accurately referred to as the "the Schrödinger's cat of spacecraft."

After it was delivered to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the Rosetta orbiter last November, the Philae lander fumbled its touchdown, and has been resting in an uncommunicative safe mode ever since. The mission leads aren't sure if it is alive or dead, but are hopeful that Philae will reboot as it gets access to more sunshine over the coming months.

But regardless of the fate of the mission itself, its online fandom is secure. The Twitter accounts for the Philae and Rosetta missions have almost 700,000 followers between them, and they often tweet adorable exchanges with each other, as well as other spacecraft.

What's more, the European Space Agency has made an amazing animated web series about the Rosetta mission, complete with cute cartoon versions of the orbiter and Philae. The most recent installment includes scenes of Rosetta and Philae hugging as they part ways, Rosetta watching over Philae as it sleeps, and Rosetta putting on some "deal with it" sunglasses as the comet approaches the Sun. All in all, it's everything a connoisseur of anthropomorphized spacecraft could want.

Oh my God, that outfit. Credit: ESA/YouTube.

Why is it so incredibly satisfying to imagine these cold hunks of metal and wire as cognizant of their extraordinary environments, and of their role in advancing our understanding of the universe?

Maybe it's simply because anything that travels to a dangerous frontier and writes home about it is inherently compelling, and the stakes are even higher if it's doomed to die alone. Maybe we feel guilty for abandoning our most ambitious explorers to the expanse of interstellar space or the lonely tempests of alien worlds, even if we know intellectually that they have no opinion on the matter.

Whatever the reason, our compassion for inanimate spacecraft is deeply rooted, and nowhere is that more obvious than with the xkcd comic that opened this article. People were so heartbroken by the idea of the deserted Mars rover that multiple happier versions of the comic have been created to soften the blow, including the alternate ending below

Alternate ending to "Spirit" comic. Image: xkcd/Randall Monroe.

I think this ending really gets to the crux of our empathy for robotic space travelers. Perhaps we see them as stand-ins for ourselves, taking on all the risks of spaceflight without demanding so much as a return trip. They are our exploratory vanguard, paving the road into space for the rest of us. Whether you are sentient or not, that is a quest worthy of admiration.