Preston Dyches, a spokesperson for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, echoed the sentiment. “It’s crushing me, all the stories calling Cassini’s end of mission dying, suicide, death, brutal, killing ... No matter how brave and noble and responsible this ending is, people still want to make it a tragedy,” he wrote in several tweets. “Sure, anthropomorphize Cassini, but if it *were* a person, you’d not speak about its impending demise with such zeal.”
As uncomfortable as it may make some people, the decision to talk about Cassini’s end in the context of death and suicide make sense when you consider that people have a tendency to anthropomorphize a variety of machines, from Roombas to WALL-E. Studies have shown that people can feel empathy, attachment, and other emotions toward robots that exhibit signs of life.
Some space robots, like Cassini and the Mars rover Curiosity, fall into that category; from afar, the machines look like they’re doing all the work by themselves, helping their human colleagues learn more about their shared home, the solar system. When Curiosity serenaded itself with a robotic version of “Happy Birthday” a few years ago—a very human act—some people were in tears, overwhelmed by sympathy for a machine, even if they recognized it wasn’t warranted. It follows that, when Cassini ceases to exist—another very human act—people will mourn it as a loss.
There has been a wide range of reactions to the end of the Cassini mission, both inside NASA and elsewhere. The space agency has avoided any mention of death in its press releases, instead referring to the end of the mission as a “grand finale.”
“We’ve tried very hard to stay away from any themes involving death, even as a metaphor,” said Earl Maize, the Cassini program manager, in an email. “That goes triple for suicide.”
Still, several Cassini scientists I’ve recently spoken with have invoked death in their thoughts on the mission’s end. One likened the end of the mission to a wake or memorial service. Another said that the end of Cassini’s signal transmission would be like “watching somebody’s EKG and waiting for their last heartbeat to come.” A third sent me a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust in the original German, which, depending on your translation, declares: “I am the Spirit that Denies! / And justly so: for all things, from the Void / Called forth, deserve to be destroyed.”
The descriptions haven’t all been gloomy. Some NASA language has leaned toward gentleness, sometimes romance. The space agency described Cassini’s final close encounter with Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, as a “goodbye kiss.” Last winter, when preparations for Cassini’s end started ramping up, a JPL spokesperson told me, “I’m partial to the idea that it’s a love story—Cassini circling Saturn as an admirer, getting to know the ringed planet and its retinue for 13 years, before throwing itself into Saturn’s atmosphere to be crushed in its embrace.” Some news outlets decided to frame Cassini’s “death” as a noble act, highlighting the reason NASA crashed Cassini into Saturn as the spacecraft ran out of fuel: to protect Titan and Enceladus, Saturnian moons that may host microbial life, from terrestrial debris. “Cassini is ready to sacrifice itself for the good of the solar system.” “Cassini spacecraft to make ultimate sacrifice.”