Title text: On January 26th, 2274 Mars days into the mission, NASA declared Spirit a 'stationary research station' expected to stay operational for several more months until the dust buildup on its solar panels forces a final shutdown.
Anthropomorphism (or personification) is the attribution of distinctly human characteristics to animals or non-living things. We make parallels between ourselves and objects, to the point where some people even jocularly worry about hurting the feelings of, say, an automobile. We call ships "she." We see human faces in objects like the arrangement of lights on the front of a car.
The Spirit Mars rover, like many high-functioning robots in real life and fiction, shares many physical similarities with a human being or animal. It has a head, eyes, neck, body, legs, feet, arms, and a hand. And it strikingly resembles robots from fiction, such as Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, or WALL-E from the film with the same name.
Thus, this comic explores what the Spirit rover's life would be like if it had a human personality. The rover lasted 5¼ active years on the Martian surface, far exceeding its expected mission duration of 90 Martian days. A sentient robot might assume that after its initially planned 90 Martian day mission was over, it would get to return home. This assumes, of course, that the rover never understood that the mission was a one-way trip, and that the expectation was that it would simply fail after ninety days. When no one comes to return it home, Spirit, possibly in a pun on its name, keeps its hopes alive while continuously analyzing rock after rock for years.
It would be cruelty of the absolute worst kind to abandon a human on an uninhabited planet with no intention of ever bringing them home, so it feels horrifying when we anthropomorphize the rover. One is rather heartened that the Spirit rover is, in fact, just a programmed machine. Furthermore, even if it were sentient, Spirit has little reason to think of earth as its home, as it had always been designed for Mars, and would have little purpose on earth. Additionally, a sentient machine might be expected to understand the limitations on its own lifespan, and so would expect to survive only three months. From that perspective, surviving for years would seem like a victory, rather than cruelty. One alternative version of the strip (see below) makes a similar point.
It is worth pointing out that Opportunity, the rover's twin, has been even more wildly successful and was only shut down in February 2019 (2111: Opportunity Rover). More than five years after this comic, when Opportunity had passed a Marathon distance, Randall celebrated this rover with the comic 1504: Opportunity.
The title text has an apparent miscount: January 26, 2010, is more like sol (Martian day) 2156 by JPL's mission status site, not 2274.
The final contact with Spirit was on sol 2210 (March 22, 2010).
- Alternative versions
The strip had a strong emotional impact on the fans of the rover, who created a number of alternative versions and endings for it.
Many alternative endings were also proposed:
- some are sad, some sarcastic, some romantic
- some look forward to the day when Spirit is finally recovered (this one was seen somewhere at CERN). Others imagine a future when the rover is not alone any more.
- [The Spirit rover is on the surface of Mars.]
- Day 1 of 90
- Spirit (thinking): 89 days to go!
- Day 88 of 90
- Spirit (thinking): Two days until I go home!
- Day 91 of 90
- Spirit (thinking): ?
- Day 103 of 90
- Spirit (thinking): Maybe I didn't do a good enough job.
- Day 127 of 90
- Spirit (thinking): Maybe if I do a good enough job, they'll let me come home.
- Day 857 of 90
- Spirit (thinking): I thought I analyzed that rock really well.
- Spirit (thinking): It's okay, I'll do the next one better.
- Day 1293 of 90
- Spirit (thinking): Sandstorm. Power dying.
- Spirit (thinking): But a good rover would keep going. A good rover like they wanted.
- Day 1944 of 90
- Spirit (thinking): Oh no.
- Spirit (thinking): I'm stuck.
- Spirit (thinking): Did I do a good job?
- Spirit (thinking): Do I get to come home?
- Spirit (thinking): Guys?
- [Spirit rests in the middle of a vast Martian landscape.]
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