How Curiosity Became an Astronaut

From the earliest years of the space program, the exploration of other worlds has been a source of the same techno-anxieties we have today.
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The little rover that could (NASA)

The most memorable thing was the tears. They were the result, for the most part, of the tensions of the "Seven Minutes of Terror." And of hope. And of anticipation. And of the knowledge that so many people had invested a significant portion of their lives in this one moment -- and the knowledge, as well, of how easily it could all go wrong.

Nothing went wrong. At approximately 1:30 am East Coast time on August 5, 2012, the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, erupted with cheers, high fives, hugs, relief, and, yes, tears. The Curiosity rover, which had taken several years to be built and another year to travel away from Earth, had landed safely on the surface of Mars. 

And it's a good thing it did: had something gone wrong, there would have been a good chunk of humanity on hand to witness the failure. Members of the public had gathered together at watch parties -- including an enormous one on the streets of New York's Times Square -- to observe the landing as it happened. Millions more were watching the landing at home, through NASA's live stream. NASA had chosen, at considerable risk, to make Curiosity's landing on Mars an event, a spectacle, a drama that unfolded in nearly real time: one small step for a robot, one giant leap for robotkind.

Since then, in large part as a result of that initial spectacle, Curiosity has enjoyed a level of celebrity rarely accorded to mere machines. Even its most mundane activities -- scooping dirt, taking a break, finding a rock -- are newsworthy. More than a million people follow the rover's Twitter feed. A replica of Curiosity marched -- well, "marched" -- in President Obama's second inaugural parade.

That we would care so much about a robot on a distant planet seems oddly logical and entirely fitting in an age that has seen the retirement of the space shuttle program and the beginning of space as an everyday reality show. With the International Space Station serving as the only outlet for the world's remaining astronauts, space explorers have undergone a fairly abrupt transition from "explorers" to "homemakers." We Earthbound creatures crave new stories about the next frontier. But since humans haven't gone beyond low-earth orbit for decades, we're left with machines. Curiosity, the cheeky little rover that could, is filling the void.

In that, however, Curiosity represents a significant shift in our sense of what space travel is and can be. Say "space travel," after all, and most of us -- still -- think of the Apollo missions, of Neil and Buzz and those boot prints on the moon. Or maybe we think of the space shuttle missions, of human-bearing rockets streaking into the sky. Say "space travel," in other words, and most of us automatically think of humans. Yet Curiosity, remarkably, has managed to become a space celebrity -- the next step in the continuum that contains Aldrin and Armstrong and Glenn -- in every way but the big one. It (rather, she) is a machine that we have effectively turned into a human. 

And Curiosity is, in that, the conclusion of a lengthy struggle. Manned space travel was never a foregone conclusion. From the earliest years of the space program, advocates within NASA and outside of it fought for purely robotic travel, making a compelling case that machines were better suited to exploring the unknown frontier of space. What resulted was an ongoing argument about the merits of man and machine -- a contest over who, or what, would win the privilege of exploring the world beyond our own. Advocates of the machine approach had logic on their side; what they lacked was an inspiring story to tell. Curiosity, with its big personality, inspiring background and charming penchant for selfie-shooting, is the ultimate compromise between the two sides: the humanized robot. 

This is the story of that early contest between man and machine -- and how not humans, but the human imagination, finally, won. 

The Space Cyborg
Today, with the whitewash of time, we tend of think of Alan Shepard's successful launch into space as a victory in every sense: for humanity, for progress, for a United States that was battling the Soviets for supremacy in the highest of skies. Shepard's space shot was, indeed, celebrated; it was also, however, a source of an anxiety. Even in an age that revered machines and all their conveniences, people worried about the power that technology was establishing over their lives. And the obvious fact of Shepard's flight was that Shepard himself hadn't done much flying. He was basically along for the ride -- a passenger of a pre-programmed machine that streaked its way into space. In his Selling Outer Space, the scholar James Kauffman notes that Shepard's flight, for all the accomplishment it represented, sent another message, too: that the machines, just as people feared, were taking something away from humans.

Which left NASA, the taxpayer-funded agency, with a dilemma: How do you get people to care about -- to be excited about, to be inspired by -- accomplishments that are, at their core, victories for machines? How do you sell accomplishments that are ultimately technological ... without stoking people's anxieties about technology's power?

You do exactly what NASA has been doing with Curiosity: you emphasize the people within, and behind, the machines. You play up the human aspects of the cyborg. And you sell that message to the media. (As one Newsweek story described the astronaut who would follow Shepard: "John Glenn: One Machine That Worked Without Flaw.") After the first few Mercury flights, NASA began changing its wording in the speeches and testimonies its officials delivered to the public and to Congress. "The most important thing," the Apollo astronaut Edward White put it, "is that man -- not the automatic machine -- is the primary system in space flight." The agency began referring to the space "capsules" ridden by Shepard, Glenn, and Carpenter as, instead, space "craft." ("Capsule," James Kauffman points out, implies human passivity; "craft" implies human control.) And those craft were not ridden, according to NASA, so much as flown.

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The supremely simple design of the Mercury capsule (NASA)

The Mercury astronauts may well have been, as Chuck Yeager put it, "Spam in a can"; NASA, however, made a point a referring to them as "pilots" -- which it could fairly do, since the Mercury Seven were, after all, plucked from the ranks of U.S. fighter pilots. The facts of the flights didn't change -- save for the astronauts' ability to adjust the attitude of their capsules, the men were, effectively, passengers -- but the language did. After his flight, Glenn wrote of "flying" the capsule "myself" -- adding that the experience proved that "man's capabilities are needed in space." In the future, the early astronaut continued, we will be able to -- and we should -- "put less automation into the machines" and make a spacecraft's human pilot even more "a part of the system."

Glenn -- a man who, per The New York Times, "epitomizes a giant step in that constant, driving process to blend the human being and the machine into a unit of high harmony" -- was acknowledging the cyborg necessities of space travel. But he was also defining the pants-wearer of the unit: the human, the adventurer, the American. In one of the articles Alan Shepard wrote in Life magazine, the first astronaut took a telling dig at the first cosmonaut. Yuri Gagarin, Shepard noted, had had a "fine long ride," but "he was a passenger all the way."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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