How We Feel for the Little Rovers on Mars

The Opportunity rover’s historic mission on Mars has come to a close. The mission was an absolutely incredible success.

Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards, Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars – Perseverance Valley.

"For more than a decade, Opportunity has been an icon in the field of planetary exploration, teaching us about Mars' ancient past as a wet, potentially habitable planet, and revealing uncharted Martian landscapes," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Whatever loss we feel now must be tempered with the knowledge that the legacy of Opportunity continues – both on the surface of Mars with the Curiosity rover and InSight lander – and in the clean rooms of JPL, where the upcoming Mars 2020 rover is taking shape."

But it’s a little odd that we feel any emotion for the rover. It’s just a six-wheels and a mess of wires, sensors, and scientific equipment about the size of a golf cart. Yet we think about how lonely it must be so far away from earth, how proud we are of its incredible accomplishment, and how sad it is at the end of its life.    

In August of 2013, to celebrate the Curiosity rover’s first year on Mars, NASA engineers programmed a unit in the robot to vibrate to a musical tune. Curiosity sang “Happy Birthday” to itself. What sort of feelings does that bring? Is it a joyful tribute to a successful year? Is it a sad and lonely party on the harsh Martian dust? 

Drawing this type of emotion out of something that isn’t inherently emotional is a welcome challenge that our research team encounters all the time. When we’re talking about a product or an experience, it’s tricky to get to the emotional reactions that drive great insights. 

Our goal is making human motivations visible and we employ a diverse array of traditional and innovative methodologies to do this. 

Those emotions can be found everywhere if you dig deep enough, even for a NASA engineer who doesn’t feel like we do about the friendly robots on Mars. When asked by The Atlantic if she has some emotion about the rover she worked with, Florence Tan, the deputy chief technologist at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, denies it.   “No, I’m sorry. I’m a cold-hearted engineer,” she said. But she admits, “when I watch WALL-E, I definitely feel the same feeling that everybody feels, so I understand. When WALL-E was all alone ... I watched that movie and I shed a tear.”

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