The room is a hush of people studying computers. On screen, a black window with white grid-squares and pulsing green line. The heartbeat. We watch it for five more tense minutes leaping and spiking and then – the zig-zag falls away to a background fuzz. We know it's flat-lined when the Operations Manager removes his headphones and begins to embrace the other engineers, almost all men. In their black crew-shirts, they are mourners at an interment.
The Machine is dead. The Machine is broken, an abandoned shell on a desolate body. Indeed that jittery green line was already a ghostly echo because the deed was done 40 minutes earlier at the other end of the solar system. Rosetta was instructed to self-terminate on impact, for a 'clean ending'. The Machine has been 'passivated', some will say killed. The press conference has turned into a wake.
As I sat riveted to the livecoverage of Rosetta's descent from ESA headquarters at Darmstadt, the high emotion emanating from that inner sanctum was unmistakeable. At times during Rosetta's two year long dance with comet 67P, the anthropomorphism seemed mainly a device to engage the public. The cartoon cuteness of mother-ship Rosetta and its adorable bot-child Philae. The Twitter-feed messages: #AreWeThereYet? The cuddly toys. But it turns out that no-one had bonded emotionally more than the engineers and scientists who lived with this project for decades. Here are some of the comments from that gathering at Darmstadt:
'Everybody is very sad but it's a spectacular way to do it.'
'Now it's time to say sleep well, Rosetta.'
'Philae was such a brave little boy, sitting in a ravine, still doing fantastic science.'
'It's like Sleeping Beauty – I keep hoping some Prince Charming from ESA or NASA might come to wake Rosetta up.'
'It's like cosmic euthanasia – we just pulled a plug – a very sad day for me.'
That last muttering was from Matt Taylor being interviewed live by BBC'sSkyat Night. Grief was obviously catching because Chris Lintott introduced the programme as marking the 'extraordinary feat' but also the 'tragedy' of the Rosetta mission. The last act of Hamlet it wasn't – and there was much elation at a perfect descent from Rosetta capturing one last dust-jet of data as it drifted down to the comet. Still – why did so many Earthlings 'have something in their eye'?
In truth attributing human characteristics to our machines is nothing new. For centuries we've given our ships, cars and flying machines personal pronouns and names, often female ones. We routinely project human emotions and personalities onto objects. If Tom Hanks can paint a face on a football and talk to it in Cast Away, no wonder we loved TheClangers and Robbie the Robot? Borg-like, we are more and more hard-wired into a dialogue with our technology as it wraps itself around our lives. There you see; personification again. Our daily use of IT may just be re-programmingthe way we communicate, use language and think. Meanwhile the TV series HumanBeings explores android-human relationships with the latest robot technology that is already here.
Responding to a Rosetta fan on Twitter recently who was lamenting the crash-landing plan, Matt Taylor referenced the Replicant's last speech in BladeRunner:
We would believe it because, thanks to Rosetta's OSIRIS cameras, we peered onto the cometary surface of 67P like space tourists at the portholes. But Rosetta and Philae revealed to us not only an alien world but also ourselves. In a week when Teresa May invited us to discard the humanity of our foreign-speaking neighbours, our identity as citizens of the Blue Planet (or PlanetNowhere according to May), is put in doubt. Could some of us more easily project humanity onto a washing-machine sized box on a comet than an immigrant or refugee? One striking thing about the ESA Rosetta mission is that it has involved such complex communications in many languages in numerous European countries to construct and operate this machine across the solar system. It is a miracle of co-operation and far-sightedness without borders. That might be more futuristic than the technology. Or not. Perhaps that spirit is as tough – and as fragile – as the aluminium skin of Rosetta's craft. We should cherish both.