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October 01, 2013

Happy Birthday, NASA!

Posted by: Susan Mai

Today marks the 55th anniversary of NASA's creation. The agency became operational on this day in 1958. Amidst debate surrounding the current federal government shutdown, we are celebrating NASA's birthday with an excerpt from Working on Mars by William J. Clancey, Chief Scientist of Human-Centered Computing at NASA. The following passage describes the "being the rover" experience of working with the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs), Spirit and Opportunity:

Each scientist becomes the heroic adventurer in his or her own mind. Each scientist must place him or herself with "two boots on the ground," imagining what the rovers can see and reach. And then, through a most amazing conceptual objectification of the whole process in which they struggle and debate with full awareness of the rover's clocklike workings, the scientists relegate themselves to behind the curtain as they say that the rover "sends postcards," becomes more courageous, digs a trench, and explores. No one scientist is allowed to take individual credit for discoveries on the mission, yet in these phrases some prideful self-description is projected onto the machine.

In summary, talking about the rovers as being like people is not a difficult stretch: like us, the rovers move, sense, scrape rock, move things around, take photographs, and send them home. For the MER scientists, being a member of a mission realizes a personal dream of being an explorer. Yet the nature of telescience requires individuals trained in academic cultures that reward individual achievement and onstage performances to work as a group behind the scenes. Projecting their identities onto the robots restores a sense of personal control, of being an agent on Mars, and helps make the anonymity acceptable. Everyone is equally unnamed yet equally present in the robot, moving and probing together. The result is an engaging story with an emotional connection.

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