If you're one of the hundreds of thousands of people who follows the Mars rover Curiosity on Twitter, you know that the robot has a big personality that matches her massive size and capabilities. She's also obsessed with pop culture and the theme song to Shaft, and will answer almost any question you have about her journey across the Red Planet. How did Curiosity become the biggest space robot celebrity on the internet? Last week I sat down with the three people who tweet as @MarsCuriosity to find out.
Veronica McGregor, Courtney O'Connor and Stephanie L. Smith work in the public information office at NASA JPL, the facility where Curiosity was born. And they collectively created the voice of the robot who is beloved by over 1.2 million followers on Twitter. (The robot even received marriage proposals after successfully landing on Mars, though not as many as Bobak Ferdowsi, the "Mohawk Guy," Smith noted.)
It all began in 2008 during the Phoenix mission, when McGregor had the idea to start tweeting from the perspective of the robot exploring Mars. The Phoenix lander's Twitter account exploded with followers, and she realized she'd touched a nerve. "People like getting news in the first person," she explained. "They really responded." The account was inundated with questions, excited comments, and jokes. And when the Phoenix lander stopped transmitting, there was an outpouring of sadness — "Even I was in tears," McGregor admitted.
That experience convinced her that she and her media team had hit upon a great way to get people engaged in the science of the Mars missions. By turning the robot rovers into characters, they emphasized the way these missions are just another version of the Moon landing — it's just that we're landing people on Mars via remote. Still, for all intents and purposes the robots are extensions of the NASA science teams. They are our eyes, ears, hands, and science equipment on another world.
When you read what Curiosity is doing in the first person, McGregor said, you're also more forgiving when things go wrong. You realize that this is basically a lone creature on another world, doing things that nobody has ever done before, and things are bound to go wrong. It's hard to drill a rock on another world when you have no idea how the lower gravity will affect your instruments — drilling might cause a kickback that could toss the rover on its side. Hearing on Twitter that the rover is feeling cautious and worried, just the way its scientist drivers are right now, helps people understand better how science is done. It's just a bunch of people trying the very best they can, in an utterly new situation on an alien world.
Carnival Barkers for Science
Though the Phoenix Twitter had worked well, the project lead on the Spirit and Opportunity rover teams didn't want McGregor to tweet as those robots in the first person. But McGregor, Smith, and O'Connor were convinced that the Curiosity mission needed a strong, confident, gleeful voice to represent the mission on Twitter. "We grabbed the Twitter account and started tweeting in the first person before anybody could stop us," McGregor laughed. And it worked. Curiosity is more popular — and certainly more entertaining — than most celebrities on Twitter. Smith said the team spends part of every day answering questions and keeping people up to date on the latest exploits of the Curiosity rover. And making jokes. Or quoting songs and dropping pop culture references. "Curiosity is very pop culture savvy," Smith explained with a grin.
The group works closely with the science team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and "every tweet is a call to action," Smith said. "Curiosity wants you to look at a photo, a video, a PDF, or an article." Each tiny piece of information is a call to learn more. "We're carnival barkers for science," she added. "If we can catch your attention with a Jay-Z lyric or Steve Martin reference then maybe you'll click on the link and watch that video or print that PDF and learn about the mission."
Curiosity's Twitter account is a lot more than just a hook to get people interested in science, though. It's successful because McGregor, Smith, and O'Connor have created a character with a very distinctive voice. Their task was akin to writing a science fiction story from the perspective of a robot on Mars. First of all, they knew the rover was female. "She's a vessel of exploration," McGregor said, like a ship on the ocean. So they knew that Curiosity would prefer the female pronoun.
But what about her temperament? "She's a combination of all our personalities," O'Connor said. The team began thinking about her personality from the first moment they saw the growing robot in JPL's clean room with the "clean room bunnies," engineers wearing puffy white suits that allow them to interact with the rover in a sterile environment. What struck them immediately is how huge she was — like a battleship. Plus, she has a laser.
"She's a big, bad, one-ton of awesome, so she needs a voice that matches that," Smith said. Then she sang, ala Shaft: "She's one bad . . . shut your mouth! Just talkin' 'bout Curiosity!" So the rover is tough, she's funky, and she's brave. "She's got a voice of well-earned bravada," added O'Connor. "She's the first robot geologist on Mars, so she's very confident."
She's also very frank with her followers about how this expedition is a one-way trip. But that isn't a cause for sadness. Instead, said Smith, it's a call to action for humanity. "The rover will say she's excited for the first day when humans will come join her, and their footprints appear alongside her tracks on Mars." One of the words that came up again and again in our conversation about Curiosity was the word "glee." The rover is bursting with pride and excitement that she's on Mars first, and gets to do science that nobody has ever done before.
"She's big and strong and this is what she was built for," Smith said. "In a way, though, she's like an early career hire." O'Connor, an early career hire herself, smiled at this comment. The @MarsCuriosity team described watching Curiosity grow up in the clean room, then go off to Florida and "it was like the college years," McGregor said. But now, she's graduated from college, and landed on Mars. It's her first big job, and "everything is a first." At last, she's an adult.
O'Connor, McGregor and Smith are certainly educating the public about the ongoing science experiments NASA is doing on Mars. But they're also creating a new kind of hard science fiction, as they channel the voice of the first geologist on Mars. She's tough, she's confident . . . and most of all, she loves her job. In the @CuriosityRover twitter feed, we're hearing the voice of the future. It comes from a badass female robot scientist on Mars, who is blazing a trail for all humanity.