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.

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.

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."

The Decision to Man the Moon
The early astronauts advocated for themselves like this in large part because manned space travel -- the kind we automatically associate with "space travel" today -- was by no means an inevitability. President Eisenhower had called for a stop to manned flight programs beyond Project Mercury. And President Kennedy was initially indecisive about a manned mission to the moon. As were, apparently, his employees at NASA, many of whom believed, correctly, that unmanned excursions -- the very kind that Curiosity represents today-- would be more efficient and less dangerous than versions that would involve humans. Only four days before Kennedy finally decided on his space policy, asking Congress to commit to a manned lunar landing, Hugh Dryden, NASA's deputy administrator, gave testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Dryden was asked what practical use there might be to putting a man on the moon. His reply? "It certainly does not make any sense to me."

Four days later, however, Kennedy would make the sense on NASA's behalf: presenting a victory in space as a way to win "the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny," the president asked Congress to commit funds for "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

At that point, the indecision ended: the goal had been decisively articulated, and that goal was footsteps on the moon. "Space travel," in the public imagination, would thereafter mean "manned space travel." After Kennedy's speech, James Kauffman notes, "NASA officials testifying before congressional committees never failed to offer justifications for a manned lunar landing."

'The Pioneer Spirit of This Great Nation'
Manned missions had obvious appeal; humans are relatable and unpredictable and thus dramatic in a way that machines simply are not. As Newsweek put it, "No satellite, no matter how ingenious or scientifically valuable, can match the ageless human drama of the individual -- solitary, questing, vulnerable -- facing the unknown." And no entity recognized this more clearly than the one NASA relied on to tell, and to sell, its vision of manned moon adventures: the media. "Man-in-space," William Boot notes, "makes for a much more readable -- or viewable -- story than machines." Which meant that journalists had a vested interest in human-conducted space flight. "Simply stated," Kauffman puts it, "manned space exploration would sell more magazines and newspapers than unmanned exploration would have sold."

And what sold even more magazines -- and, with them, NASA's vision -- was the framing of the lunar mission as the logical extension of American, and human, destiny. Man must go to the moon, Edwin Thompson declared in an editorial, because his "destiny compels him to explore every unknown, every unattainable summit." He "must go to space because it is there, just as America was there, and the U.S. West was there." Kennedy, giving a medal of achievement to the Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper (whose orbital flight NASA had cannily scheduled on the anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic sojourn), made a point of noting that in America's "rather settled society," the astronauts had "demonstrated that there are great frontiers still to be crossed." When NASA asked Congress, inevitably, for more money to fund the Apollo programs, Richard Fulton acquiesced, the Tennessee representative said, because exploring the moon "is in keeping with the pioneer spirit of this great Nation."

The investment in manned missions to the moon had another effect: they soothed the technological anxieties stirred up by the Mercury program. Apollo would put technology at the mercy of man, not the other way around. The New York Times would characterize Carpenter's flight as taking place "in the tradition of the pioneers of a century ago." Lyndon Johnson, who would continue stewardship of the Apollo program after Kennedy's assassination, would refer to the astronauts as "brave pioneers." Space travel wasn't a matter of man at the mercy of machines, this logic insisted. It was instead a continuation of the oldest story there is: humanity, transcending nature. Apollo represented technology being put to use for human ends. Because it simply had to represent that. "Man," the representative Thomas Lane declared, "must be the master of this technological progress, not its robot slave."

The Robot Takes Selfies
This is, in large part, the logic that led to the space shuttle program. It is in large part the logic that led to Skylab, and to its contemporary successor, the International Space Station. NASA, of course, has invested much in its unmanned adventures, from the Mariner machines that explored Mars in the 1960s to the Voyager craft that is somewhere in the farthest edges of the solar system. But the messaging, despite all this, has been clear: when it comes to space as a force of inspiration, it's humans, all the way down. Scientists themselves have acknowledged this. "A space program without man," the scientist Simon Ramo admitted, "has much less useful prestige appeal."

Curiosity takes a selfie. (NASA)

That might all serve as simply more ammunition in today's ongoing debates about manned versus unmanned space travel. But this is where Curiosity's example is instructive. Because what's notable about the six-wheeled Martian robot is that it, too, is an extension of NASA's emphasis on manned space travel. It is in many ways the ultimate expression of the space cyborg of John Glenn's vision. It's certainly not the first robot to be humanized -- in 2008, the Mars Phoenix lander was sending cheeky tweets to more than 10,000 followers -- but it is the first to be humanized in an age of saturated social media. In the (Earth) year it has spent on Mars, Curiosity has sent more than 2,000 tweets. It has taken multiple selfies. It has delivered Morse code to the dusts of the Martian surface. It has been thoroughly anthropomorphized in a way that makes it, actually, relatable to humans.

Oh, and it has done some science and stuff. But so have many, many other machines under NASA's purview. What makes Curiosity unique -- why we care that today is its Marsfall anniversary -- is that NASA has managed to to make us think of the rover not just as a machine, but as a humanoid little creature, merrily exploring another planet on our behalf. When Gordon Cooper completed the final Mercury flight in 1963, Newsweek remarked that "once more, the ancient drama of the solitary individual against the elements was re-enacted." NASA has appropriated that mythology on Curiosity's behalf. The agency has framed the machine as a pioneer in the spirit of Lewis and Lindbergh, the solitary striver exploring an unknown world in the name of exploration itself. It has presented Curiosity, the robot, as its own kind of astronaut.