I love space travel as much as the next huge dork. I still have my personalized certificate for participating in NASA's 2008 "send your name to the moon" project somewhere in my file cabinet. (Not to mention the certificates for "Space Hitler," and "Poophead McGee," whose names I also sent to the moon. Hey, I was in college.) I'm thrilled that the Curiosity rover is on Mars beaming back awesome panoramic pictures. But NASA's bubbly anthropomorphized Twitter account for the rover is creeping me out.
The @Marscuriosity Twitter account has been a publicity coup for NASA. It's got more than 800,000 followers, and it's only been on Mars for 3 days. NASA's skill at social media had a huge part in creating the frenzy around the landing which, as Michael Sacasas pointed out, was of an order of magnitude greater than the very similar landing of the 2008 Phoenix rover. (Poor Phoenix.)
But still. Why is Mars Curiosity so unnervingly cheerful all the time? "No photo or it didn't happen? Well looked here, I'm casting a shadow on the ground in Mars' Gale crater," Curiosity quipped when tweeting out a photo on Monday. Hey Curiosity, you do realize you're alone, 32.9 million miles from home, on the surface of a barren planet where the average temperature is -67 degrees? And you will certainly die there? And you're joking about selfies? This attitude is not just a weird fit with the scenery. It's borderline psychopathic.
Not to mention that Curiosity announced its safe arrival on Mars like Dane Cook announces he's in Cincinatti to perform a three-night run at Senor Chuckles: "I'm safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!" This is as if Neil Armstrong's first words on landing on the moon were, "Duuuuuuuude. Swag."
Curiosity's gleeful persona makes a little sense since the mission has been going so well so far. But what if something goes wrong? If its wheel gets stuck in a crater, or if a rotor malfunctions, will we start seeing a stream of panicked tweets for help, as Curiosity's plutonium battery slowly drains down towards a cold, lonely death?
"The sunset up here isn't so beautiful when you know it's your last," will be the crippled Curiosity's final Tweet. "Goodbye, cruel Mars."
Mars Curiosity's Twitter account reminds me of the Russian writer Victor Pelevin's fantastic, creepy novel Omon Ra. Omon Ra imagines that the "unmanned" probes Russia sent to Venus and Mars during the 60's space race were secretly piloted by child astronauts. After the kids landed and completed their mission, they offed themselves with a handgun, letting the Soviets celebrate another triumph of pure technology.
Here we have the opposite: A real robot (I hope!) personified as an intergalactic Belieber. But this also seems meant to hide an uncomfortable truth. Curiosity's a bit too eager to prove it's got a personality, with the pop culture references and goofiness. I can't help but detect in Mars Curiosity's bubbly persona a bit of overcompensation for the fact that the prospect of real people setting foot on Mars any time soon is not looking good. After all, now that the shuttle is retired, NASA doesn't even have a way to get our astronauts to the space station—much less another planet.
We're going to have to keep being entertained by cute space robots for a while.