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Loving the machine…

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The spectacular servicing of the ailing, ageing Hubble Space Telescope during the recent space shuttle mission STS 125, watched by the world on NASA TV and Twitter, brought up a slightly uncomfortable question in my mind…

Is it wrong to have feelings for a machine?

No, I don’t mean the “feelings” I have whenever I watch Battlestar Galactica and see Caprica 6 slinking across the screen in that sprayed-on red dress… temptation, thy name is Toaster… I mean non-humanoid machines. Specifically spacecraft.

I’m a well-known – and often gently-derided and ridiculed – “Rover Hugger”. As one of my friends put it, I love the Mars rovers “like a fat kid likes cake”, and I don’t mind admitting it. I do. I love those plucky, determined-to-be-immortal little guys. With their camera-packed heads, stubby little legs and beetle-shell backs I could hug them until they fell apart, after all they’ve seen and shared with me. I’ve checked on them at least once daily, every day, for the past five and a half years.

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I care for them, I worry about them, feel like I’m walking beside them every hard metre of the way as they haul themselves across the ruddy, rocky surface of Barsoom, and if I could I would happily, right now, transport myself to Mars and bodily dig and scrape and claw the soft dirt out from under and around poor stuck Spirit’s wheels and lift her free of her martian quicksand trap. Hate the idea that she’s stuck there, I just hate it…

And during the past couple of weeks, whilst watching those brave, skilful and, yes, heroic astronauts working on and inside Hubble, more feelings of mechanical sentimentality were inspired in me, and I came to realise just how special that wonderful instrument has become to me, too.

I’ve kind of grown up with Hubble; it’s always “been there” in the background as I left childhood behind and started finding my way in the big, bad adult world. I’ve been doing Outreach talks seriously for around the same length of time Hubble has been operational, so almost every talk has featured, at some point, images taken by the great telescope. I must have shown “The Pillars of Creation” to many, many thousands of people since it was taken and returned to Earth, and it never fails to raise an appreciative gasp when it flashes up on the screen in the school, church hall, theatre or community centre I’m talking at.

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It’s because of images like the “Pillars” that Hubble has become – although I hate the cliché – the “people’s telescope”. For although its images are doubtlessly useful and informative scientifically, they are also, quite simply, bloody gorgeous. While astrophysicists and astronomers drool over them for what they can teach us about stellar composition and light absorption by dust grain clouds, many of Hubble’s portraits of catherine wheel galaxies and colourful nebulae are so beautiful, so achingly beautiful that they would not be out of place on the wall of an art gallery, illuminated by spotlights and protected by red velvet ropes.

Of course, Hubble’s glories have been hard-earned. Gyroscopes have failed, computers have had fits, she’s really been through it, poor thing. And while we bare all now celebrating her latest triumphant refit, and eagerly anticipating another half decade or more of rewarding science and wonderful images, we will never forget that her story had a less than glorious beginning. Every space enthusiast reading this will remember how they felt when they heard that the great telescope’s primary mirror was faulty, and had been made ever-so-slightly, um, the wrong shape. I knew NASA would be in for a kicking, and I wasn’t wrong. The space agency was ridiculed widely and mercilessly, Hubble itself cruelly labelled “A giant squint for Mankind”… I still squirm when I think of that… and as an Outreacher I had to answer lots of people who were indignant that NASA had spent so much money on such an orbiting white elephant. Of course, the problem was fixed when NASA engineers came up with that stunning set of ‘contact lenses’, but it was still a hard time, and then, and on other occasions since, I have had to stand up and defend Hubble.

Since then I’ve showed Hubble pictures at all my Outreach talks, shared them countless with farmers, pensioners, kids and Men and Women in the street. I’ve emailed links to Hubble images to web-users who’ve been so impressed by them they’ve wanted one for their wall, and I’ve printed out images for people not connected to the net who were desperate to do the same thing. I’ve seen Hubble images on TV adverts, in films, on CD covers, everywhere. They’re now a part of our culture. An the public outcry that followed the original decision by NASA to not fly a fourth servicing mission showed just how much affection the telescope is held in.

Why? Why did people get so worked up about that? Well, personally I think it’s because Hubble is one space mission that people outside of the pro-space and space enthusiast communities actually “get”. They see images of the International Space Station hanging in the black sky above Earth, and ask, rightly, what rewards do they get from such a hugely expensive project; they see a shuttle launch on TV and wonder “what’s in it for me?”. That they don’t know the worth of the ISS, and don’t appreciate the rewards of shuttle missions, is as much a failing on our part as it is theirs: clearly we haven’t done a very good job of promoting those programs. But they see a beautiful Hubble image think “Yeah, now that’s doing something useful…!” because everyone loves a gorgeous picture, and a Hubble image like the “Pillars” calls out to non-scientists simply because it is so beautiful. That’s why I agree with the people who argue that many Hubble pictures actually qualify as works of art. Hubble images genuinely impress, excite, inspire and move people.

So, yes I have a very real “soft spot” for Hubble, and I was delighted to see it rejuvenated and set free again last week. But Hubble wasn’t the first machine to steal my heart.

That honour goes, perhaps predictably, to the grand old girl of space exploration herself, the spacecraft that’s had more makeovers and image changes than Madonna – the USS Enterprise.

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The Enterprise was the first spaceship I saw on TV that I really believed was real. Why? Well, it looked like it could actually fly, it looked powerful, and, more importantly, it had lots of windows that gave it a sense of scale. It also looked strangely familiar. You see, as a kid I was also fascinated by the great ships of centuries past – the great sea-going warships of Nelson’s and Elizabethan times especially. In fact, for a time I spent almost as long looking at pictures of them in the dog-eared encyclopaedia in my junior school library as I did looking at pictures of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules, and when I saw the Enterprise on TV for the first time it’s graceful, sweeping lines, powerful engines and sleek hull reminded me strongly and vividly of the great galleons that ploughed the stormy oceans of times gone past…

The Enterprise has changed a lot since then, many times; her engine nacelles have grown, shrunk back and grown again, and her saucer section has changed its size more often than Kirstie Alley, but the look and feel, of the great ship, its essence if you like, has remained the same. Enterprise IS space exploration, and whenever I see it on a screen – TV or cinema – a lump forms in my throat and I feel a real surge of affection for it. Every time I see that epic sequence in STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE where Kirk sees the newly-refitted Enterprise in dry-dock, with the orchestral score surging up in a tsunami of unabashed geek celebratory joy, I get shivers. The new movie’s equivalent – where the young Bones and Kirk see Enterprise though the grimy window of their shuttle – is pretty good too, but doesn’t pack quite the same emotional punch somehow. Actually, much more moving is the shot where the young rebellious Kirk rides up to the shipyard fence on his hi-tech motorbike and sees Enterprise under construction, her half-built hull surrounded by cranes, gantries and platforms. That made the breath catch in my throat I’m not ashamed to admit…

Smaller machines hold special places in my heart, too. I never tire of watching the ‘droids Huey, Dewey and Louie pottering about in the corridors and garden domes of the good ship Valley Forge in SILENT RUNNING, and even though I know It Was Just A Movie I have a clear image in my mind of that brave little droid tending Earth’s last surviving garden, somewhere Out There in the cosmos…

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Speaking of robots, ok, ok, I admit it, I love the C3PO/R2D2 double act, it makes me laugh every time I watch STAR WARS. Have to be honest – I prefer Artoo, he actually seems the more human of the two, he has more character and personality than the more humanoid Threepio. (Note to George Lucas, if he’s reading this: Artoo… jets hidden in his legs? WTF?!?!? Did he forget he HAD those in Episode IV? Consider yourself slapped.)

But my affection for R2D2 is hardly a surprise, is it? After all, there can’t be many space enthusiasts my age who don’t have fond childhood memories of hearing a cinema full of people go “Awwwwww!” when Artoo toppled over in that canyon on Tatooine. But that’s not to say I love all ‘cute little robots’. Some just cry out to be thrown into a trash compactor.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY was one of my favourite childhood shows. It had great spaceships, big explosions, a wise-cracking hero, the works. It also had Colonel Wilma (sigh) Deering, who memorably strode across the post-apocalypse Earth in a painted-on white jumpsuit and towering stiletto heels, her Farrah Fawcett hair billowing in the wind. Oh how I loved her… and oh, how I hated Twikki.

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Yes, you remember Twikki, the little gold-plated, oriental-looking dwarf robot that talked in a bizarre streetwise gangsta voice – long before there were streetwise gangstas – and sounded like a cross between Max the butler from HART TO HART and Al Capone. Every time he waddled onto the screen I was longing for him to fall over, or be blown to bits by a well-aimed laser blast, or savagely mauled to death by that obviously-a-man-in-a-furry-suit daggit from Battlestar Galactica. Sadly that never happened, and for some strange reason our hero had a soft spot for his biddi-biddi-buddy Twikki, so it must have been my problem.

But back to the real world, and that successful servicing of the Hubble telescope. Like many thousands of people around the world I followed the mission closely on NASA TV. I watched the lift-off (eventually… long story…) and then watched all the spacewalks, too, marvelling at the determination, ingenuity and sheer human bloody-mindedness of the astronauts as they grappled with hand grips, stuck bolts and misbehaving tools. But unexpectedly, my favourite part of the whole mission turned out to be NASA TV’s coverage of the shuttle Atlantis as it returned to Earth.

The shots of the shuttle orbiter dropping swiftly out of the clear blue Californian sky were breathtaking, amongst the most memorable I’ve ever seen in all my years of shuttle-watching. Everything was just perfect – the focus was sharp, the camera steady, the sunlight playing on the shuttle’s fuselage made it glow with an almost mystical energy… it was just a perfect storm of drama, beauty and success. And it brought home to me, again, how much I love the space shuttle orbiter.

I know the engineering, scientific and practical reasons for the shuttle’s retirement and its replacement by the Constellation spacecraft, and I know the people working on it only have the best interests of the space program and its astronauts at heart, but I don’t care what anyone says; compared to the sleek-winged, snow-white shuttle orbiter, the Orion CEV capsule is a snub-nosed, butt-ugly, Apollo throwback. If we’re going to ask our brave astronauts to risk their lives in the harsh environment of space, surely they deserve a more graceful, more elegant, more civilised way of getting there than strapped into a glorified Starbucks coffee cup. And I’m damn sure they deserve a more civilised return to Earth than plummeting into the ocean like a stone hurled off a cliff-top, left to bob about in the surging water like a bottle until someone comes to fish them out. That’s just wrong. It’s undignified. It almost makes me feel ashamed, to be honest.

But anyway, my ranting isn’t going to change anything. Shuttle is being retired, and that’s that. Maybe I’ll learn to love Orion one day. But I already know that an Orion will never, ever look as beautiful suspended above the blue and white Earth as the shuttle does in this image…

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So, back to my original question. Is it wrong to have feelings for a machine?

To answer that, I have to come back to the Mars rovers, because of the huge impression they’ve made on me and the way they’ve changed my life. Somehow the Mars rovers have become a part of my life. If I don’t check on their progress at least once a day I get, well, itchy, jumpy. If I hear they’re in trouble in some way my heart sinks. If I hear or read about someone criticising them I get very defensive. I’m literally dreading the day the first rover falls silent. The rovers matter to me.

But does that mean I have feelings for them? No. I have feelings of respect and admiration for their missions and goals, for the people behind them. I have feelings of pride in their achievements so far, and feelings of excitement and apprehension for the events that will unfold in the days, weeks and hopefully months to come. So when I say I “love” Spirit and Opportunity I don’t actually love the machines themselves, that would be silly… and a little bit disturbing. No. I love what they represent – our insatiable hunger for knowledge, our desperate need to see over the horizon, and our unquenchable curiosity about what’s “out there”.

Fitting then, that the next rover to head to Mars – the MER-dwarfing Mars Science Laboratory – has just been christened “Curiosity” by NASA.

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(I was hoping for “Amelia”, in honour of famous aviator Amelia Earhart, but I think I was the only one!)

The orbiters of the shuttle fleet…Hubble… Spirit and Opportunity… all spacecraft that have a special place in my heart. No doubt Curiosity will join them there in a couple of years, when she lands on Mars and starts trundling around Barsoom continuing our quest for knowledge.

And who knows, maybe one day, when we build a real Enterprise or her equivalent, reproductions of all those spacecraft will be displayed in one of her shuttle or payload bays for the space enthusiasts and “rover huggers” of that time to enjoy..!  🙂

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One Response

  1. Thanks for sharing.

    “A giant squint for Mankind”

    Heh! Oops, sorry about that unfortunate choice of extract, but … loving the comedy…

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