Early Monday morning, NASA’s half-ton, nuclear powered Curiosity rover touched down on the surface of Mars. Minutes later, the rover tweeted, “GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!” The Robot’s outburst prompted a retort from Stephen Colbert. “I don’t know who this Gale is, but gentlemen don’t kiss and tell,” he admonished on his Tuesday show. But Colbert had his facts wrong—Curiosity is no gentleman.
I discovered as much when I contacted NASA to find out who exactly is responsible for Curiosity’s sassy and flamboyant personality on Twitter, which has already managed to attract 900,000 followers. “She’s a robot with cameras, a drill, and a rock-vaporizing laser, powered by plutonium 238,” Veronica McGregor, Media Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told me. “She’s the biggest, baddest rover we’ve ever had, and she knows it. She’s got confidence.”
McGregor leads a team of three women who run Twitter feeds for a variety of NASA rovers, landers, and probes, all in the first-person. Before NASA, she worked as a producer at CNN for fifteen years, where she covered space exploration and other topics. She has been at the forefront of NASA’s social media presence since 2006, when the space agency first entered the interactive online arena. Stephanie Smith, a former print and online journalist, brings humor to the team. “My interests include theater and improv comedy,” she told me. “For all three of us, I feel like our disparate interests are converging on this job in a weird, wild, wonderful way.” Courtney O’Connor, a former Microsoft intern who rounds out the trio, joined recently as her first job out of college.
The team faces a challenging authorial juggling act—not least because all of their robots have distinct personalities. “Each one has its own story to tell,” McGregor said. “Phoenix [a spacecraft that landed on Mars in 2008] was stationary, it couldn’t rove, and we knew it was going to die after five months. There was a huge outpouring of grief on the Internet when it did finally stop communicating with Earth. [Its personality was:] ‘I’m gonna be here for eons as humanity’s monument on Mars, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’”
Discerning readers would have noticed that Phoenix’s self-narrated journey to Mars concluded with a tragic denouement. During the last few weeks of her mission, Phoenix’s tweets grew increasingly fatalistic, self-aware of her impending demise. “I’m digging as much as I can right now,” she tweeted on October 8, 2008. “I may have to stop using my arm by end of October due to declining power supply.”
According to McGregor, Curiosity is less about mortality and more about “bravado,” befitting her exploratory, pioneering mission. If all goes according to plan, which so far it has, she will roam the surface of the red planet for years, tweeting pithily throughout. “She’s sarcastic,” said O’Connor. “She has a lot of our own personality traits.”
Much has changed since the grainy images and grim gravitas of the Apollo days. “It once was one small step... now its six big wheels,” Curiosity mused, a few moments after the Gale Crater tweet. “I don’t think you get to be big on Twitter if you don’t have a sense of humor,” said McGregor. “It doesn’t mean that we’re compromising accuracy for entertainment value.” Indeed, as long as Curiosity, and the people who give voice to her, are on the NASA payroll, silliness will be plentiful, but it won’t come at the expense of science.