The real Twitter bots

Throughout the space age, astronauts have communicated their unique experiences in a variety of ways. Now, in the digital age, robotic explorers are stealing the show and our hearts.

Illustration by Bo Moore

Illustration by Bo Moore

In the classic sci-fi movie Contact, protagonist Ellie Arroway is almost speechless when she sees an alien planet for the first time. She exclaims: “No – no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should've sent a poet...”

Over the last half-century, about 530 humans have left the thin blue line of our planet’s atmosphere and experienced its beauty from afar. Repeatedly, astronauts and cosmonauts have reported that being in space seems to flip a switch in their brains, transforming their perspective of our planet and our place in the universe. They describe a sense of awe, a profound understanding of life’s interconnectedness, a sense of responsibility for the conservation of Earth – and a desire to share these feelings of wonder and transcendence with those left down below. But historically, astronauts have struggled when it comes to communicating their life-changing experiences to those back home. Space is an alien environment to the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants, and so there’s a very distinct gap between space explorers and ground-dwellers – both in distance and in perspective.

Many space explorers have turned to creative endeavours to help bridge that gap. Photos, for example, have always played a huge role in communicating space travel. In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first humans to orbit the Moon, and when they emerged from behind the Moon for their fourth pass across the surface, they witnessed something that no human had ever seen before: Earthrise. The photo they snapped encapsulates something that words can’t quite replicate: the blue marble we all call home, rising over the lunar horizon, hanging delicate and alone in the vast, dark emptiness of space.

 
The Apollo 8 crew shot this captivating and poignant image, Earthrise at Christmas, in 1968. NASA/William Anders (PD-USGov-NASA)

The Apollo 8 crew shot this captivating and poignant image, Earthrise at Christmas, in 1968. NASA/William Anders (PD-USGov-NASA)

 

Other astronauts have turned to visual art. Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov painted and drew after his return from space, and Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the Moon during Apollo 12, became a full-time artist after retiring from NASA: the only artist to travel to another celestial body. And actually, some astronauts have written poetry. Upon returning to Earth, Alfred Worden of Apollo 15 wrote a book of poetry called Hello Earth; Greetings from Endeavour. The first poem written in space was by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, on the ISS in 2009, as part of a program JAXA runs called Ucyo Renshi, or space chain poetry.

Art is a useful medium for astronauts to communicate with, because it creates an experience that encompasses emotion and beauty in a way that transcends the limits of spoken language, just as astronauts’ experiences transcend anything that we down on Earth find familiar and relatable. It’s a way to bridge that gap between those flying high above and the planet-bound below. But given how dramatically the social and technological landscapes have changed over the past half-century, it makes sense that the way we close this gap has transformed as well. Today, astronauts have more than words, more than art, more than grainy images – they have social media.

Modern astronauts are internet trailblazers. The first tweet from space was sent by NASA astronaut Mike Massimino in 2009, which was followed by the first live tweet by astronaut Timothy Creamer just one year later. The first Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) from space was conducted in 2013 by Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield, who also created the first music video filmed in space. On his third and final trip to space, Hadfield spent six months on the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting our pale blue dot once every hour and a half. He did not waste a minute of that time.

Though other astronauts had used social media before him, Hadfield was something special. He took the world by storm with his personality and his content, generating massive engagement with space exploration in a way that space agencies had been trying to do for years. Along with YouTube videos about his daily life in space and experiments conducted in zero-g, Hadfield took over 45,000 spectacular pictures of the Earth from a distance of 400km. Many of these breathtaking images – from devastating Australian bushfires to sprawling plankton blooms to the intricate spiderweb of Beijing’s lights – were posted to his Twitter account. His charming and inventive captions captured the interest of over one million followers. His photographs follow in the footsteps of the iconic Earthrise image, providing the public with infinitely varied perspectives of our fragile blue planet – but in real time, and directly to their Twitter feeds.

 
 

Like earlier astronauts, Hadfield’s fundamental goal in sharing his experience is “to get people to see the world as one small place... that we’re responsible for.” In a goodbye video on his final flight on the ISS, he said: “Seeing [the planet] this way and being able to share it … has allowed me to get a direct reflection back, immediate, from so many people ... that it makes me feel like I’m actually there with people or that we’re having a conversation, that this experience is not individual but shared.” And it is. Social media has allowed astronauts to share their lives in real-time. Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, YouTube and even Pinterest can create an environment that removes some of the distance separating astronauts and the public, transporting the public’s eyes into orbit and letting them experience a little of the almost-spiritual wonder for themselves.

But human astronauts don’t have a monopoly on engaging Twitter accounts. In May 2008, the social media team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory began tweeting from the handle @MarsPhoenix, making the Mars Phoenix Lander the first spacecraft with its own Twitter account. The account’s delightful description is “I dig Mars!” and its location is noted as “Mars, Solar System”. Interestingly, its tweets don’t just contain mission updates: there are also first person tweets from the spacecraft itself. These more “personal tweets” seemed to both save space in the 140 character limit and attract more interaction from followers.

When the Phoenix Lander found water on Mars, Twitter was even used to break the news:

 
 

And upon completion of its mission, @MarsPhoenix stayed upbeat until the bittersweet end:

 
 

@MarsPhoenix reached 300,000 followers – an impressive feat for an inanimate object – and following this success, NASA has created a plethora of social media accounts for every spacecraft and mission since. Each one tends to be given a slightly different “voice”. For example, @MarsCuriosity is bold and confident, posting selfies and keeping us updated on its important work. 

 
 

@NASAJuno is similarly brazen and even sassy, matching its namesake: Juno was the wife of Jupiter, king of the Roman gods, and she’s now keeping a close eye on her husband by orbiting the gas giant and peering through its clouds.

 
 

@NASAVoyager, on the other hand, is more subdued and nostalgic, full of wanderlust and wistfulness.

 
 

Launched in the 1970s, Voyager 1 shot past our neighbouring planets at a blistering speed of 17 kilometres per second, and is currently soaring past the edges of our solar system, more than 20 billion kilometres from home. In 2014, a worried 5-year old called into a radio program to ask Commander Chris Hadfield whether the Voyager 1 spacecraft is happy, all alone out there. Hadfield replied: “Voyager is so happy because it's the bravest satellite of all. And it's not lonely because it's talking to us. It phones home.”

 
 

It’s perhaps natural for a 5-year old to assign human feelings, traits, and even a personality to an inanimate object, and it’s natural for Hadfield to “play along” – but the existence of Voyager’s Twitter account shows that adults readily anthropomorphise spacecraft too. It’s easy to see how: take a look below at the Curiosity rover, for example, which is currently roaming the cold desert plains of Mars.

 
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover has been exploring the red planet for four years. NASA/JPL-Caltech (PD-USGov-NASA)

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover has been exploring the red planet for four years. NASA/JPL-Caltech (PD-USGov-NASA)

 

Its mast and main cameras resemble a neck and head, with the lens as a cyclopean eye, and its robot arm as… well, an arm. Despite being the size of an SUV, Curiosity can be imagined as a slightly misshapen but endearing robotic dog. It’s easy – fun, even – to imagine that it has a personality and emotions of its own.

The media departments of space agencies around the world have capitalised on this, running Twitter accounts for a variety of robot missions. The European Space Agency are in on the fun with an account for @ESA_Rosetta and @Philae2014, and the Indian Space Research Organization runs @MarsOrbiter, whose description reads: “Orbiting the Red Planet since Sep 24, 2014. Explorer. Loves science, photography and long cruises.”

The structure of these accounts is noticeably similar: they include a mix of first person tweets with a dash of personality and humour, interspersed with regular detailed science updates and – perhaps most amusingly – interaction with their human fans. These accounts even interact with other robot accounts, showing otherworldly camaraderie.

 
 

Sometimes, they even use the hashtag #spacebuddies.

 
 

They also interact with celebrities – Voyager, for example, once tweeted with Leonard Nimoy.

 
 

Even more intriguing, these accounts allow for some interaction with the public. Granted, it’s a fairly limited 140-character interaction, but it still allows people to send questions, comment on images, and even request future content. Robotic astronauts are obviously more limited than human astronauts when it comes to the interactive side of social media (they’re unlikely to film themselves singing David Bowie songs) but these accounts have created a space where the public can directly and immediately engage with space missions. The interactions are often pleasantly unexpected and welcomed by the robots’ human fans.

 
 

And they’ve certainly attracted a lot of attention – the follower counts of these spacecraft run up into the hundreds of thousands, with the Curiosity rover trumping them all with its astounding 3.41 million followers. What makes them so incredibly popular? Well, for starters, they’re fun to follow. It’s entertaining to see a tweet from a spacecraft pop up on your feed. We’re all perfectly aware that these rovers and spacecraft aren’t really the ones tweeting, but perhaps that doesn’t matter; perhaps we’re happy to suspend our disbelief for a light way to keep updated on what’s happening out in the solar system.

Fundamentally, that’s what these accounts are for: to engage Earth-dwellers with space exploration. We’re naturally curious beings, and the infinity of space captivates the imaginations of so many people. But for most, details about the scientific research have never been the most important thing. People want the astronauts – human or robot – to tell us what it’s like out there, and this information is much easier to enjoy and digest if it’s presented in an accessible way. Most people don’t live close enough to a space museum to visit one, but they likely have an internet connection. Space agencies and astronauts clearly want the public to connect with and support space exploration, so it makes sense for them to use social media to deftly integrate space communication into people’s regular social feeds.

 
 

It’s interesting to note, though, that early astronauts were criticised as being too unfeeling or too “robotic” to effectively communicate their experiences – they didn’t have the artistic or linguistic capabilities to depict space in the kind of grandiose way that the expectant public yearned for. As Michael Collins of Apollo 11 said: “We weren’t trained to emote, we were trained to repress our emotions. If they wanted an emotional press conference… they should have put together an Apollo crew of a philosopher, a priest, and a poet.” But now, millions follow the words of actual robot space travellers. Of course, the key difference is that these robots aren’t expected to be multi-talented. Instead, they have a team of humans back home who handle their public engagement, while the robot itself can just get on with the technical job it’s good at.

The downside of this is that they can’t express their experiences in space in a human way. They can’t write poetry or paint an image or create art the way human have done to express their emotions and connect with others. Even the robots’ Twitter accounts are simply a game of pretend – the gap between space and the public is only bridged by an illusion conjured out of pixels. Perhaps this illusion is a form of art in itself. If what it takes to capture the public’s imagination is to pretend that a spacecraft is having a 140-character chat with us across the vastness of space, then so be it.

We’re only human, after all.

Edited by Ena Music