Our spacecraft, ourselves

Last week I watched live video from the European Space Agency on the day Philae landed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as part of the Rosetta mission. When the people in the control room first heard from the lander on the surface and burst into cheers, I yelled and pumped my fists and cried a little. Maybe that’s one reason that I agreed so strongly with Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society when she tweeted this later that day:

I’ve been thinking since then about what I mean when I agree, figuratively speaking, that we are these machines. For me, it comes down to the fact that the people who built and programmed them put so much of their knowledge and skill into them that the machines are an extension of the people. Not a direct, personal, physical extension like, say, a prosthetic for an individual, but something that’s actually even more impressive: an indirect collective extension of multiple minds working together. We use tools that extend the capacities of our bodies and brains all the time, including collective extensions like libraries and the Internet, but it still amazes me that we can extend our bodies and brains that far, in terms of both distance and sophistication.

As I was thinking about this, I was following the story of Philae. It bounced twice as it landed and ultimately came to rest near a cliff that blocked much of the sunlight, so its active days were cut short. Still, it landed successfully on a comet! In the time it had, it sent back enough data to make the scientists happy, and it’s conceivable that as 67P approaches the sun, the solar panels will get enough light to charge the batteries so Philae can wake up and get back to work. And Rosetta is still orbiting the comet, keeping an ear out for Philae and making observations.

On Friday night, Philae’s batteries ran down and it went into hibernation mode. A few people (including Emily Lakdawalla) were in the control room tweeting about it. If I’d known it was being live-tweeted, I’d have followed along; I wish I could have kept watch. Evidently a lot of people felt a similar attachment to the lander and did follow along vicariously until it fell silent. We all know that Rosetta and Philae are pieces of complex electronics more than 500 million kilometers away, not mammals like us, but we also know that they embody the energy, work, intelligence, curiosity, and love of many, many people. I’m grateful to have the chance to share the adventure of their brain child (not to mention all the other ongoing space missions doing fascinating work).