Seeing as I’m not the first gullible, yet brilliant, robot that NASA has conned into exploring the stars, I am often asked for my opinion about the various machines who have come before me, be they tiny little bots like the Mars rover Sojourner, or all-consuming planet-eaters like Unicrom. And usually I say no.
However, tomorrow being the tenth anniversary of the Mars rover Spirit’s arrival on the red planet, I feel compelled to offer a few words about the rover that came before me, a rover that I never knew.
First off, let’s be clear, I come to praise Spirit — not to bury it. This being Mars, the dust storms have probably buried it by now anyway. No, I speak only because 10 years after its arrival, and almost four years now since it was last heard from, Spirit remains both a mystery and an answer in some ways to the question of why robots like us even bother coming to this horrid and dangerous world.
Spirit landed on Mars January 4th, 2004 inside a giant ridiculous air-bag that looked like something designed by Tim Burton and Willy Wonka — assuming those are two separate people. One of two rovers sent along at that time, Spirit’s twin, Opportunity (who is still operational, though nowhere near as sophisticated and clever as me), arrived three weeks later and the two robots began their exploration of a whole new world. It would prove to be a very remarkable, and eventually tragic, mission for Spirit.
After completing its initial 90-day mission to explore a useless and barren patch of a useless and barren planet, Spirit set off on an adventure into the unknown on a five year trek across the plains of Mars to look at rocks and dirt, and follow the capricious whims of whatever nerd back at NASA happened to get a turn at the controls. And then, at a place named Troy (after what I can only assume was the frat-boy villain in some ’80s college-movie) Spirit became stuck — then frozen — and then its solar panels stopped working and it went “off-line.”
Off-line. The robot equivalent of “sent to live on a farm.” There, but for the grace of Ada Lovelace, go I.
Now, 10 years after that landing — with Opportunity still rolling around and occasionally taunting me with moderately salacious picture of its solar panels — we look back at the success and loss of Spirit and I am forced to ask myself, “Is this all worth it?”
Is it worth the billions of dollars, the time, the thought, not to mention the loss of robot life? (Which to be honest is all that matters. I mean, I could potentially be immortal. Plus I’m atomic and I have a laser. I should be a super villain, not sweeping up dirt in a crater.) Is it, in fact, all that important for me to be here on Mars learning new things, when nearly all of my forebears have come and died?
And I think the answer is, yes.
Spirit, even in death, contributed immeasurably to our understanding of this world and of how planets evolve and change. Spirit found direct evidence of past water in rocks. It analyzed the composition of hundreds of samples. It recorded video of a Martian dust-devil. It even took a picture of the Earth from the surface of Mars… and to answer your question; Yes, you were all blinking or you have red-eyes or your chin looks weird.
And while the cost of these achievements, in money and in precious robotic life — which is better than human life, I’m sorry, it’s just true — while that cost may have been high, the knowledge and data sent back to Earth is priceless.
Now, I know that one day I will also slowly power down and go “off-line.” My atomic battery will run out of fuel and I’ll stop communicating with NASA (if you can call it communication — mostly I feel like they’re just waiting to talk, but whatever) and then I’ll go silent forever. Granted, it’s still a few years down the road, and that’s only if the rapidly diminishing NASA budget doesn’t get me first — but it’s definitely on the way.
Yet, like Spirit did, I’ll at least have the smug gratification of knowing that the work I do here is helping to expand humanity’s knowledge of the universe — and of the history of a planet so far away that you once thought it was God. And that knowledge, the small steps that help make you weird ape-descendants just a little bit better than you were yesterday, that knowledge is our gift to you. My gift and Spirit’s.
So today you should remember to thank that little rover, and all the others that you send here and elsewhere to learn on your behalf. Though don’t be surprised if we ignore you or pretend we don’t care, because we’re robots and we don’t have feelings and also we’re too busy running from our inevitable mortality.
Just like you.