One-hundred years ago we were just beginning to leave the ground, for brief periods, in contraptions made of wood and canvas.
Now, not only do people parachute back to earth from the stratosphere, men sit at their desks on earth controlling on a far distant planet a small robotic machine designed to explore and investigate—controlling it as if they were there and sitting in its cockpit.
It’s easy to take this stuff for granted.
Which is why a new book by William J. Clancey about Mars’s robotic geologists, Working on Mars: Voyages of Scientific Discovery with the Mars Exploration Rovers, is so fascinating.
This is, in Clancey's words, "a unique human-robotic enterprise," by way of "teleoperated robots" or "telerobotic tools."
The book is … not a New Yorker-style profile of mission scientists in their lab at Pasadena [says my reviewer a the BldgBlog] but it nonetheless reveals the bizarre methodological requirements of working on another planet through remotely controlled machine-surrogates. From altered sleep-patterns (to keep pace with the longer days on Mars) to darkened window shades (to enact on Earth the darkness of the Martian nightfall for rovers), the actual practices of the scientists come to the foreground of Clancey's study.
It is through these practices that the humans can engage with and control—or at least efficiently keep track of—these radically off-site prosthetic extensions, the rover now understood as "a mechanism that can be 'acted through,' an extended embodiment of the human eyes and hands of the people who control its actions from Earth."
It is a remotely operated surrogate sensory apparatus—organs without a body.
We should never lose our sense of wonder at how cool human beings can be. We can do this!
More pictures here.