From Heroes to Humans: The Totally Regular People Who Landed a Robot on Mars

Now that our space explorers are astrobots, it's easier to see the ordinariness of the folks who are our space program.

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Implosion of memes! NASA staffers do their best McKayla Maroney. (Reddit)

Yesterday afternoon, a group of the scientists and engineers orchestrating NASA's Curiosity mission got together to do an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit. They got -- and answered -- questions about the mission itself, about the engineering that went into the Curiosity rover, about the lifestyle the mission requires of them. (For example: They reset their alarm clocks by 40 minutes every day to keep Mars time.)

The many exchanges of the AMA were, unsurprisingly, informative and illustrative and educational. But my favorite was, practically speaking, none of those things. It went like this:

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Shorter version: "Hey, congrats on the robot you helped land on Mars, and everything! Also, you still have that algebra book I loaned you eight years ago. I don't want it back, or anything, but just FYI."

What's amazing about that is -- just as Schratz said -- the awkwardness. Ohhhh, the awkwardness. The admission. The apology. The sadface. The fact that, of all the questions one could ask of a group of NASA engineers, geologists, and astronomers who had just successfully sent a robot to another planet, "you have my book" was the thing this guy selected. The fact that, included among all the kudos Schratz has received in the nearly two weeks since Curiosity's successful Mars landing, this offhanded-and-backhanded compliment was one of them. The complimenter in question summed up the situation well: "haha."

And yet the exchange, for all its absurdity and awkwardness, was also totally charming. And illustrative. And human. It was a reminder of the wonderful ordinariness -- not the averageness, of course, but the ordinariness -- of the people who worked together to land Curiosity on Mars. And it's a signal of how profoundly the public attitude toward the people of NASA has evolved since the era of manned space exploration. It's hard to imagine a "hey, dude, you have my book" exchange playing out with a Gene Kranz or a Jack Garman -- or, for that matter, with a Neil Armstrong or a Buzz Aldrin.

Part of that, sure, is simply the fact that Reddit wasn't around when those fellows, whether land-locked or space-soaring, completed their most notable missions. Theirs was the era of broadcast. Medium-message-wise, things might have been different had they done their work in a web-connected world.

But a bigger part of the shift has to do with something largely independent of the Internet: the evolution of NASA as a cultural force. The era of the astronaut was also the era of the astronaut as hero. It was the era that gave us, retroactively, "Rocket Man," and The Right Stuff, and Apollo 13, and the moonwalk: cultural events that came from a place not just of imagination, but of inspiration. Space was the future; astronauts were taking us there. And so we situated those explorers above the rest of us, figuratively as well as literally. We revelled in epic images of epic men, voyagers who, unsure what they would find, slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.

Those men, however, didn't always want the honor of epicness. They often tried, in vain, to convince the world and the media that defined it to emphasize the "man" in "spaceman." They insisted -- probably with some very human mix of false humility and true -- that they were simply people, doing their jobs. Heroism, they learned, wears thin. As Neil Armstrong lamented to a Cincinnati newspaper in 1976, "How long must it take before I cease to be known as a spaceman?"

But we couldn't help ourselves. Because here, after all, were humans who had stepped into the heavens. The spiritual overtones of that, and the Campbellian undertones, were unavoidable. The newness of space as a frontier for human hands -- the danger of it, the mystery of it -- meant that our default posture toward astronauts was one of genuflection.

Now, though, machines are walking where humans once strode. We have our astronauts, still -- but the space explorers who are venturing into the unknown are, for the most part, no longer flesh and blood. And that makes it easier for us Earth-bound observers to see NASA for what it is: a human agency, a flawed agency, but an agency that keeps striving for something more. Now, it's easier for us to see NASA's staffers not as Heroes, beatified by bravery, but as something much better: as people who do heroic things. People who deserve respect, but not necessarily reverence.

The Internet codifies that empathic evolution. When we can follow Adam Steltzner on Twitter, and share images of Bobak Ferdowsi on Tumblr, and learn about Brian Schratz's book-borrowing habits on Reddit ... that changes the way we think about our space agency and the people who work there. It makes NASA, in the public imagination, less an object of admiration, and more a place of commiseration. It means that, when a Reddit user winkily informs us that his shared history with NASA leads him to "take some of the credit" for Curiosity's success ... he may be just a little bit justified.