NASA Rovers and Spacecraft are Cute Animals, Even to Serious Space Experts
Even the most dedicated space scientists and enthusiasts can’t help but attribute human and animal characteristics to literal robots. Logically, we know that Opportunity is just a hunk of metal, but that undersells really its essence. It’s hard not to imagine Oppy as a hard-working space puppy, traversing the red planet until it eventually gives out.
I promise, some very smart people agree.
“All spacecraft [and rovers] have personalities,” Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor at the Planetary Society and author of The Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Performs Its Job, tells Inverse on episode five of I Need My Space.
“Sojourner reminds me of a loyal little dog never straying far from Pathfinder, the lander” Lakdawalla continues. “I see Spirit and Opportunity as the surefooted burrows that accompanied the geologic mappers in the rocky mountains. That means Curiosity is a camel. It’s the ship of the desert. It’s not a pretty creature, but it moves at its own pace slowly but steadily across the desert through the sand dunes and is picking up samples and bringing them along over time.”
While Curiosity and even spacecraft like Juno don’t look anything like us, we still tend to think of them as friends — at least I do, because I don’t have many friends. Maybe it’s because sometimes, space robots do human-like things.
There’s the infamous story about Curiosity singing “happy birthday” to itself on Mars, in addition to snapping a selfie seen ‘round the world. But there’s also research that suggests this extends further than a Wall-E-like fascination: humans have exhibited empathy toward robots in various lab settings, in multiple experiments. It’s hard to explain why, even though we have brain scans from people who’ve watched robots experiencing pleasant and unsettling situations.
“The more affection someone feels for an object or a robot, the stronger the tendency to anthropomorphize becomes,” Joelle Restrom writes about this subject for The Daily Beast. “Think back to your favorite childhood toy — perhaps a stuffed animal or a blanket. How would you feel if someone ripped it apart? You’d experience some degree of anguish even though you know your stuffed animal can’t feel pain and doesn’t know what’s happening.”
Though robots have no idea that we love them so, I like to imagine that somewhere under all that metal, there’s a happy little heart. I mean, there isn’t. But still, it’s nice to imagine.