This may seem a tangential topic to Showbits, but bear with me as I share this fascinating interview with Veronica McGregor of JPL. Ms. McGregor had a very important responsibility in the recent Mars Phoenix mission: she maintained the lander's Twitter feed, writing several daily updates to appear on the microblogging site.
Ms. McGregor took this media venue as an opportunity not just to disseminate factual information, but to engage her readers by presenting the Lander's discoveries from a first-person perspective. She describes how Twitter's 140-character limit motivated her to shorten prefixes such as "The Phoenix Lander" or "Data is not coming in suggesting" to simply "I am doing this" or "I found that".
Moreover, over the course of these many reports, the tweets took on a distinct voice, furthering the anthropomorphizing of the Phoenix Lander. It even wrote back to its followers, establishing an interplanetary dialogue. In response to public reaction to the discovery of water ice was the tweet, "Thanks for the congrats! & yes, I've seen water ice before but this is big news because it's 1st time EVER H20 has been collected/measured." And as the project neared the end of its life, it pondered, "Many questions about next Martian summer and will I wake up? It is beyond expectations. But if it happens you'll be among the 1st to know." Ms. McGregor explained the thought that went into these exchanges:
It's funny, when I sit down to write something for Phoenix I feel like I have to get into my "Phoenix character." I've been writing some other things for Phoenix, in first person, and I had to explain to somebody that it takes me a little while because I have to actually start thinking, well, "how would Phoenix look at this?"
In this way, the Lander became not unlike WALL•E, the mechanical hero of Pixar's summer hit. Though the Lander's virgin tweet on May 7 predates the movie release on June 27, it's likely not a coincidence that two optimistic robots captured the public's imagination simultaneously. Movies like WALL•E and Star Trek prompt humanity to look to the future and the stars, and NASA is helping us get there. Even the slightest glimmer of hope, no matter how whimsical or fictional, is something we're hungry for.
Phoenix's success on Twitter has led other projects have followed suit. The Mars Rovers, which turn five years old in January, joined Twitter in August, while the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan started tweeting in July. NASA's next expedition, the Mars Science Laboratory, which won't launch until September 15, 2009, at the earliest, already has a over 3,000 followers — despite having not yet published a single tweet! And if these aren't enough for you, NASA has indexed its many other Twitterers.
Someday, we'll be looking not up to the stars, but back to the Earth. Until then, we can count on entities like NASA and Pixar to bring the universe to us.