Dispatches from a Homesick Robot

Who is Twittering on behalf of the Mars Phoenix Lander? Among the exclamations of Mad Men withdrawal and the pro-Obama celebrations on my...

Who is Twittering on behalf of the Mars Phoenix Lander?

Among the exclamations of Mad Men withdrawal and the pro-Obama celebrations on my Twitter feed today, a lonely robot called MarsPhoenix is posting its last updates from the red planet.MarsPhoenix-the screen name of NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander-is an unlikely Internet sensation: a small spacecraft designed to poke around Mars' dirt for signs of microbial life, it isn't as flashy (or needy) as other web celebrities. It doesn't have a gimmicky theme song and it can't perform impressive tricks on a treadmill. (See: Tay Zonday or the rock group OK Go, respectively.) But when the Lander recently started winding down its 15-month Twitter career-as its scientific mission came to an end-a corner of the blogosphere went into shock.Some 37,000 people regularly follow the first-person, often-poetic MarsPhoenix Twitter feed. From 35 million miles away, they ask MarsPhoenix questions about life on the red planet. They celebrate its intrepid mission. And now, they mourn the robot's slow demise due to the onset of an unforgiving Martian winter. (Twitter user laura47 recently lamented: "MarsPhoenix *cry* I don't want to lose you!! so far away, and yet so close.")Of course, everyone knows that the Lander itself is not really Twittering from Mars-though that doesn't seem to matter to those who happily anthropomorphize the robot through comments like, "Hi there, buddy! Try to stay warm! <3." The notion of a real-life Wall-E, schlepping through the Martian landscape, has turned a relatively dry NASA mission into what could be the beginning of a new emotional investment in space exploration.But, who really is writing those pithy updates on Phoenix's behalf?One person is responsible for not only the MarsPhoenix Twitter feed, but a handful of other NASA-related feeds, including those for the Saturn-exploring Cassini-Huygens satellite and the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Her name is Veronica McGregor, and she works in the news office of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. She spearheaded the project of Twittering mission updates. Thus far, it's freed up news office resources, many of which were going to long-form blog posts and video content, and connected the agency with a new generation of web users hungry for instant information and interactivity.McGregor, who cut her teeth as a producer for CNN, calls the Twitter endeavor an experiment in public involvement. After beginning with a first-person perspective in order to save space-Twitter has a 140-character limit per post-she recalls waiting anxiously to see how people would react. "Part of me thought that somebody was going to write back and say, 'Don't do that, that's silly,'" she confesses. "Instead, it just took off." In a matter of days, the number of people following the Lander's Twitter feed jumped from 3,000 to 9,000.It's a testament to the power of social media technologies that an organization as habitually detached as NASA can make significant inroads with a public it's kept at arm's length. Give McGregor's astute understanding of the power of empathy and narrative a lot of the credit; it makes following MarsPhoenix compelling in a way that no standard-issue press releases and dry updates from the NASA website ever could be. Part of her secret is the sympathetic persona that she infuses into her dispatches; many comment on MarsPhoenix's interminable cheerfulness (or as Twitter user dundie calls it, "Barbie cheerfulness"). "I try to be the eternal optimist," says McGregor, who hopes her Twitter attitude will lessen the blow of the solar-powered MarsPhoenix's collapse during the dark Martian winter. "People are getting so upset about the mission coming to an end. I'm trying to lessen that grief."Before she sits down to write something for the Lander-including a recent guest-blogging stint for popular gadget blog Gizmodo-McGregor asks herself, "How would Phoenix look at this?" She's portrayed the robot as a martyr for scientific discovery: "I'll be humankind's monument here for centuries, eons, until future explorers come for me ;-)." And as the mission draws to a close, she's made the messages more cautionary, advising us to: "Take care of that beautiful blue marble out there in space, our home planet. I'll be keeping an eye from here. Space exploration FTW!"Hopefully, the success of this experiment will lead to a sea change in the way people interact with the research community (and vice versa). By reaching out to the public, scientists can keep people apprised of their groundbreaking work-and even offer some interesting lessons, as well. Take for example McGregor's MarsPhoenix dispatch that informed her readers that the star that looked like it was directly above the moon wasn't a star at all--it was Mars. "I got a lot of responses from people saying they actually went out and looked; they got very sentimental about it because they never knew that was Mars," she says. "It's great to think that people are learning."Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona