xkcd has the Spirit

By Phil Plait | January 29, 2010 9:27 am

xkcd_spiritToday’s xkcd comic takes a somewhat different stance on the plight of Spirit than I did.

Still, it’s funny how we anthropomorphize objects, especially when they are vaguely human or animal looking. Especially if they’re cute. And Spirit is very cute.

Who’s a good rover? Hmmm? You are! You’re a good rover!

MORE ABOUT: Spirit, xkcd

Comments (64)

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  1. RickK

    That’s so sad. It’s like the last droid in “Silent Running”.


  2. So, that’s how to spell “anthropomorphize”.

    Anyone got a box of Rover Chow? (And a couple of spare bucks to pay to get it there?)

    Well, here’s to hoping someone will visit them in the not-too-distant future, like we did for Surveyor. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap961124.html

  3. Ron

    Some day Spirit will return like V’ger and it will have an attitude!

  4. ND

    Visiting surveyor 3 I think put the moon landings over the top for me (along with the moon buggy). They didn’t just go to the moon, they landed within walking distance of a lander from another mission. How cool is that?

  5. Prattlehorn

    Can we send out a rescue mission for the little guy?

  6. Toothygrin

    It’s like the last droid in “Silent Running”.

    … or Roy in Blade Runner

  7. Ams

    That made me sad… poor little guy!

  8. Tom

    So sad. Fun tribute though.

  9. Sili

    Is there pop-culture reference in the idea? It feels vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it.

    Also in the comics: pareidolia! (And the current story-arc is a cos-playing Star Wars.)

  10. Gareth

    @Ams: That made me sad… poor little guy!

    Me too, even though I know I was being really silly for feeling sorry for an object that clearly doesn’t “think” like that!

    It’s the same as when I have a chocolate bunny at Easter and feel bad about eating it… 😀

  11. Kirk

    I almost teared up a little when I read that comic and then came right here to make sure Phil had it. It certainly is a different take on Spirit! I’m glad that, intellectually, I know it’s not a conscious entity that we’ve abandoned. It also does provide a good preview of our responsibilities when we send people there (or advanced AI, I suppose…!).

  12. Gareth:

    It’s the same as when I have a chocolate bunny at Easter and feel bad about eating it…

    You do bite the head off first, don’t you? That way, it’s quick and painless.

  13. Siobhan
  14. Laughingrat

    Makes me inexplicably sad too.

    Were you aware that Spirit Rover had a blog for a while?


    Of course we all knew it was some clever person with time on their hands, but nevertheless it was sometimes heartening, sometimes a little sad to read.

  15. mus

    at least I wasn’t the one to actually get a little sad after reading the comic…

  16. Harman Smith

    It’s weird that this comic made me sad too! Also, I guess this means xkcd no longer sucks.

  17. It reminded me of the famous whale in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, and yeah, I felt for the little rover in this strip even though I know that’s silly.

  18. Mark Sletten

    I’ve heard the best comedians have a firm grasp of the tragic…

  19. G.wiz

    I’m thinking more of Dr Who’s K-9 – Who’s a nice little doggy then?

  20. @Sili: Maybe the 2008 movie, Wall-E?

  21. bouch

    Let’s use Phineas and Ferb’s portal to mars to go get it. Whoops, Candace got there first, not much left…


  22. Jonathan

    Awwh, he wants scritches! Yerf!

  23. Oh, for pete’s sake. Did Spirit get hit by lightning on Mars? We need to protect our robots from lightning strikes better so they stop developing sapience.

  24. Jim

    @Sili – the cameras are awfully reminiscent of Johnny 5.

  25. Nathan M.

    @3: You mean “S’rit” will return like V’ger and have an attitude. :)

    Side note: I can’t help but empathize with V’ger’s plight. Despite the awesome process by which V’ger was constructed, it returned looking for an all-powerful “Creator.” When presented with the answer to its origins, its initial response was virulent denial. From the last 150 years, I’d say V’ger’s response was markedly human.

  26. I think that comic gives us an urgent, heartfelt reason for a manned mission to Mars. Somebody’s gotta let that little guy know he did a good job! 😉

  27. Dan Gilbert:

    I think that comic gives us an urgent, heartfelt reason for a manned mission to Mars. Somebody’s gotta let that little guy know he did a good job!

    I can see it now…

    A wide shot of a barren wind-swept dessert. A quiet “beep” can be heard in the distance. Slow zoom to a small dot in the background. More “beep”s, slowly getting louder. Finally, a close-up of Spirit, camera “eyes” pointed skyward. “Beep?” “Beep?”

    Cut to WALL-E.

    “Fellow Earthlings. Don’t let robot probes like Spirit die a lonely death. Abandoned by those that built him, and cared for him. Cold and lonely, thousands of miles from his fellow robot, and millions of miles from any people.

    For less than $1 per month — less than three pennies a day — barely more than 2 cups of coffee a year — from each American, we can save those brave little robots and bring them home to a loving planet.”

  28. jmd

    Uh, FYI, Sprit and Opportunity are girls. JPL has been referring to them in the feminine for at least 5-6 years now.

  29. BJN

    There’s a ton of humanity that went into that device. Here’s to the people who made it possible, and to those who have been thrilled to follow the exploration.

    More robotic missions! Send rovers in teams so they can rescue each other.

  30. Today, we at the Church of the Immortal Robot Reagan are holding a canonization and lube ceremony to honor the sacrifices made by Spirit. She shall forever have a place among the saints of our religion as the patroness of exploration and new ventures as we strive to help our mechanical brethren attain equality and attempt to rid ourselves of our shells of rotting meat so that we, too, may live forever as eternal robotic and cybernetic beings.

  31. Nemo

    I love XKCD, but this one kind of annoyed me. It’s sad, but it’s all wrong. Spirit was designed for Mars — it is home!

  32. Tony

    It’s amazing how much people really have anthropomorphized these rovers – a lot of it is their simple tenaciousness in the face of the incredible odds against them. A ninety-day mission has turned into six years – a long trip, an uncertain landing (look at some of the other Martian probes, scattered all over the scenery), dust storms, intense heat and cold… and they keep trucking on as a visible face of humanity’s presence on another world. It’s no surprise that many people, space exploration enthusiasts especially, have grown attached to the little buggers.

    Here’s hoping a stiff gale blows her out of that rut during the winter.

  33. mike burkhart

    At lest it did not get put into an asylem for martians who think there from Earth or land an find a town with its desiners liveing in it only to descover there martians useing there telepathic powers to lull it into a false sense security an destory it may be it found all the martians dead of chicken pox.(this comes from the martian chronicals the storys of the 2nd,3rd,and 4th expedtions I would of done the 1st but it would not have made sense)

  34. skylyre

    Oh noes! :O The little rover that could. I like the way that comic captured the “spirit” of this mission. I mean c’mon… 6 frakking years! You can’t help but be emotionally attached to a robot on Mars who was only supposed to last 3 months and is still working 6 years later.


  35. D.Rose
  36. 6 years? Is that how long I’ve been reading this blog?

  37. Redstar

    I don’t care if NASA refers to it in the feminine; the only thing I could think after reading that was, “Poor little guy!” I wish I could thank it for its service; I guess I’ll have to settle for thanking the brilliant teams of engineers and scientists that designed Spirit so well that it lasted long enough for us to fall a little bit in love with it.

    The sadness is akin to learning a family pet’s died long after you’ve moved away. Distant but no less real. Maybe I just can’t help anthropomorphizing after all it’s done.

    Thanks for six years of science and inspiration, Spirit. I doubt anyone would debate you’ve been “a good rover like they wanted.” (*snif*)

  38. IBY

    It is an inanimate object… Why does that comic make me feel so sad?

  39. Plutonium being from Pluto

    2. Ken B Says:

    So, that’s how to spell “anthropomorphize”.

    Well some of us would spell it with an ‘s’ instead of a ‘z’ but I guess that’s the difference between *real* English english and the corruption that is American english! 😉

    Poignant cartoon – well done to the cartoonist as that sure worked for me as well as clearly, most others.

    Vale Spirit brilliantly done you wonderful old girl, brilliantly done. Thankyou.

  40. pheldespat

    After Winter passes, they’ll do a routine check and discover that 5 of Spirit wheels are working. She’ll get out of Troy and will continue roving Mars as if nothing happened.

    /wishful thinking


  41. Jessica

    It reminds me of Voyager (?)…the little space probe that could. Still out there, faithfully sending back information. I think we expected you would break before you’d be sent out beyond the comfort of our solar system alone. Good luck little guy.

  42. Stuart Van Onselen

    Without even reading this cartoon my mom was feeling sad for Spirit. I told her to think of it not as a sad lost little robot, but as an old man, with a lifetime of spectacular achievement behind him, dying, not in his bed, but instead while out doing what he loved most.

  43. DrFlimmer

    Whenever things become humanized (much easier to spell than “anthropomorphize”), we develop feelings for them. Curse you, human being.

    Poor, poor Spirit! :(

  44. Spectroscope

    Poor Spirit?

    Very good Spirit rather I’d say! 😉

    Like # 43 Stuart Van Onselen, I think of her (NASA’s choice of anthropomorphic pronoun) as someone that was expected to die young who, instead, has amazed the doctors in living to be well over a hundred and achieved some incredible, wonderful things in that time. Spirit has had such a “good innings” as we say in cricketing terms – & in exceeding all expectations as she has, we can let her go with pride and thanks.

    Like # 33 Nemo, I think Mars is and always was Spirit’s true home. What could she do & what would she be on Earth after all? Nothing near as special as what she is and has accomplished on those cratered plains of Mars. Its where she lived her whole life, where’s she’s succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams and now where she will – fittingly – rest in peace.

  45. Ken

    #42: If the NASA PHBs even let the team try …

    If a “cost-saving measure” doesn’t simply put the driving team out on the street!

  46. I thought they were going to go with a parody of ‘MOON’
    “Day 91 – Spirit finds Opportunity… what the heck”?

  47. Pierre

    Guys, guys, don’t feel so sad. My take is that in a few decades (or centuries) Spirit will
    still be at the same spot, admired by lots of kids and adults marveling at the rover as they
    go about visiting a bright and cheerful museum built around it.

  48. Justus

    I’m a sad panda… :'(

    Brilliant comic, though!

  49. Sohvan

    Maybe one day when we’ve colonized Mars, Spirit and Opportunity will have their place of honor in a musem.

  50. Korman643

    …and by the way, it’s almost 01:00 am in Northern Italy now, a beautiful – and freezing – clear night of full moon. Mars is very high, almost at the zenith – I really had to get out of home to look at it, and share a thought for Spirit, stuck in the sands of that tiny red dot far away in the night sky….

  51. Pi-needles

    @24. Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

    Oh, for pete’s sake. Did Spirit get hit by lightning on Mars? We need to protect our robots from lightning strikes better so they stop developing sapience.

    Nice reference to “the Five’s Alive!” Wonder how many others will get it? 😉

  52. Now that it is stuck in one place, will they change it’s designation from Rover to Spot?

  53. Grimbold

    It’s the last panel that evokes feelings of loneliness, the way its zoomed out and Spirit looks so small among the giant red wasteland.

    Also, #17, when has xkcd ever sucked?

  54. Dan Oberste

    Don’t anthropomorphize the Mars rovers!!! (they hate it when we do that)

  55. Cornbread

    Don’t worry Spirit, we’ll come for you soon.

  56. Caravelle

    My gmail status message was “Bring Spirit Home !” for months after reading that strip.

  57. Radigan

    Many of you feel bad for this rover. That is because you crazy! It has no feelings! And the new one is much better.

  58. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Radigan : To be human is to be illogical.

    [Channelling Spock.]

    Sometimes that is good. 😉

    Oh & yes I’m crazy & I’m not sure anyone’s truly sane these days, the whole world is crazy so how can we not be? 😉

  59. ben

    coming to the party rather late but: I think it’s a good thing that we can empathise with machines now. It seems likely to me that when machines become sapient, they too will have hopes, fears, goals, perhaps the desires for recognition or communing with other sapients or continuing to exist. If we can empathise with them and recognise these shared qualities, there is less chance of us alienating them as ‘other’ and ‘lesser’ and thus bringing on the Matrix/Terminator/BSG future. (to say nothing of empathising with fellow humans who look, speak or think differently)

    And in the meantime, as earlier commenters have noted, some humans put quite a bit of themselves into those rovers. For them, Spirit shutting down might be like losing a cybernetic eye or arm or, yes, a beloved pet.

    And finally, I choose to believe (without any evidence) that, along with excellent engineering and cunning work-arounds, part of what kept those rovers going so long was metaphysical: the thoughts and wills of all the humans following their mission. Maybe we projected an otherwise absent personality onto those machines, but in doing so we actually gave them some of ours. Just throwing that out there.


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