A Farewell to Kepler

Image: NASA

In college I was taught to never anthropomorphise. “Never think of a machine as having feelings”, I was told. It doesn’t hate you, it doesn’t love you, it’s just following the laws of physics, or whatever instructions were programmed into it. It doesn’t have emotions.

But at some level, that’s bad advice. We’re human, and a considerable fraction of our brain power is devoted to figuring out how other people are feeling. It’s often easier to treat a machine as a person, and put that brain power to use. If you work with something long enough, you start to feel “Oh, she’s not going to like that”, much faster than you can figure out why that is going to place extra stress on a weak part of the design. Anthropomorphism has its advantages.

I worked on the Kepler spacecraft for 6 years, and I knew her pretty well. Staring at her data, I would watch her stretch as the sunshine spread across her shoulders. Studying her telemetry, I could see her get jostled as the occasional stray piece of dust collided with her, moving so fast it would knock her off balance for a few minutes until she recovered. Mostly, I watched as she sat, calmly, serenely , in the depths of space, millions of miles from home, changing our understanding of the Universe.

When Kepler was first proposed back in 1984, humanity knew of no planets outside our solar system. For all we knew we were alone in the void. Worse, learned astronomers doubted we would ever be able to find other planets given the difficulties involved, and treated the whole idea as slightly crazy, and not worthy of serious attention. Today, thanks to Kepler, we can go out to any dark place on a clear night, look up, and know that we can probably see a star that hosts a planet like our own. We might not know which one, but Kepler has told us that planets like the Earth are commonplace throughout the Galaxy.

That’s a big idea. In a time where thinking big seems limited to designing the next time-wasting app on your phone, that’s a very big idea. In a world where half the population seems to be in a panic over what people are doing on a slightly different part of that world… well I wonder if more of us understood our place in the Universe, this planet wouldn’t seem quite so scary to them, and we could all live a bit more serenely.

Today, it was announced that the Kepler spacecraft has run out of fuel, and reached the end of her life. There’s nothing that can be done, and nothing left to do but send the last commands to turn off the radio, shut down the computer, and go to sleep for the last time.

I knew Kepler’s moods, I knew her tempers. She wasn’t perfect, but then again, who is? She could chatter too much sometimes, and sometimes she could over-react when things went wrong. But the men and women who built her got as close to perfect as they could have ever hoped. The measurements she made were so precise it was like measuring a child growing taller by less than the width of a single strand of hair, all while they danced around your kitchen. That was what she was designed to do, and that’s what she did, over and over again. There has never been a machine that could do what she did.

And now it’s over. I know that she’s just a machine, and she doesn’t get emotional about the end in the same way I do. I know she does not fear death, can not understand it. But having worked on her for so long, I just can’t think of her as a machine anymore. She may not be a person, but she was a personality.

I guess I have a lot of emotions tonight.

FM