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Why We Love To Anthropomorphize Spaceships

Two days ago, NASA’s MESSENGER orbiter crashed onto the surface of Mercury, after 11 years of exploration. Its final Tweet was enough to bring a tear to your eye.

It inspired Becky Ferreira to look at other robotic space explorers and how we regard them as sentient beings, gladly sacrificing themselves for the greater good. A lot of that is due to NASA’s habit of setting up first-person Twitter accounts for spaceships, probes, and rovers, in order to engage the public. But NASA isn’t the only space agency that does that.

Indeed, MESSENGER isn’t even the first spacecraft to have live-tweeted its own death, and it certainly wasn’t the most melodramatic about it. That award goes to China’s Yutu lunar rover. In January 2014, the Yutu published a series of tearjerker posts on its Weibo account, after a malfunction threatened its life.

Whoever was operating Yutu’s account milked the situation to the fullest, and even brought up the rover’s thoughts about how its “mother”—the Chang’e 3 lander—would react to its death.

"[Chang'e] doesn't know about my problems yet," the Yutu Weibo account said. "If I can't be fixed, everyone please comfort her."

We envisioned the Philae lander as a cartoon character when it landed on a comet. We all cheered when the Mars Curiosity rover landed so spectacularly on the red planet. Even its creators treated “her” like a child who left home and made good. It was a real contrast to the sadness we felt when the Spirit rover shut down after six years of work -the feisty robot was only scheduled to last three months.

Its story, told by Randall Munroe at xkcd, devastated us. But you’ll be glad to find there’s an alternate ending for that comic in an article about our habit of anthropomorphizing spaceships at Motherboard. -via Digg

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The tendency to anthropomorphize spaceships may have reached its zenith with the publication of Anne Leckie's award-winning "Ancillary Justice" novel (and its currently-award-nominated sequel), where the protagonist is "the sole surviving fragment of a starship '​s consciousness". It's -uh- complicated, but seems pretty consistent with the trend.
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