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The man behind Sarcastic Rover

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NASA’s newest rover, Curiosity, wasn’t alone on Mars for long.

Two hours after Curiosity landed in Gale Crater on August 6, her cranky alter-ego plopped down with a huff on the Red Planet. That is, a virtual alter ego named Sarcastic Rover appeared on Twitter and began updating followers about her exploits. “Oh sure,” she tweeted early on. “I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing than driving around a wasteland looking at dirt for the rest of my life.”

Sarcastic Rover (@SarcasticRover) tweets about the desolate Martian wilderness, her silent, rocky companions, and the drudgery of doing science — or “doing a science,” in Sarcastic-speak.

Sarcastic’s witty and exasperated missives, tweeted by screenwriter and comedian Jason Filiatrault, have attracted more than 100,000 followers on Twitter. Despite a professed disdain for most things red and inanimate, the rover still treats followers to a taste of Curiosity’s experiments, whether watching Mars’ moons or scooping gravel from the crater floor.

Sarcastic Rover came to life as Filiatrault watched the real rover’s plunge into Gale Crater. “I just had this notion of this robot sort of all cramped up in there,” says Filiatrault, 32 and from Calgary, Canada. “In my mind, it had been all cooped up in this capsule … and the image of it coming out and being like, ‘God, those in-flight movies were terrible.’”

Filiatrault imagines Sarcastic Rover as a tired government worker maintaining an upbeat public personality and acerbic inner monologue. “I know they named me ‘Curiosity,’ but some days I feel like I'm just ‘Vague Interest,’” Sarcastic tweeted.

The Twitter account exploded overnight. At first, Filiatrault says, it was easy to deal with the attention. But as his audience ballooned, Filiatrault began to get a little nervous, unsure how to entertain thousands of followers.

And then he got over it. “I’m having loads of fun,” he says.

Sarcastic’s followers are, too—including NASA. At least one of the Mars Science Laboratory team members has sported a Sarcastic Rover T-shirt, and NASA’s official Curiosity Twitter feed occasionally adopts Sarcastic Rover lingo.

But despite the potential to cash in on Sarcastic Rover, Filiatrault says he’s not doing it for the recognition. It’s fun and exciting. He gets to make himself laugh. And, the science. “Mars is a fascinating planet,” he says. “And the only people anywhere, who are in any position to ever bear witness to what those stories are, is us.”

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Q&A with Jason Filiatrault
The creator of Twitter sensation Sarcastic Rover spoke with Science News reporter Nadia Drake about his hopes, heroes and what’s great about imagining a cranky robot on Mars.

When you were a kid, what did you see yourself doing when you grew up?
I thought I'd be a lawyer or a paleontologist. I was way, way, way off.

Who are your heroes?
Jim Henson was an early hero — but he died. Then Douglas Adams was a hero — but he also died. Now my heroes include my parents, Stephen Fry, Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Mamet, Steve Martin, Bill Nye, some others... though I worry that because they're my heroes they might die. That is only 50 percent a joke fear and 50 percent real.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?
Ideally still writing, hopefully comedy or fortune cookies.

How do you feel about being a public figure?
I feel decidedly non-public. I'm just the writer, and fine with it — Sarcastic Rover is the performer and as such deserves all the fame. I will say that I like having an audience of clever and appreciative people.

How do you feel about your alter ego?
I love her. Curiosity is amazing, and the Sarcastic Rover is... cranky and bitter, but she's also excited and thrilled to be finding herself. I think she's finding what is amazing about Mars and starting to appreciate how incredible the journey is.

What makes you laugh?
Clever word usage makes me laugh, people falling down, wit, surprising swear words, crankiness... Twitter is great for forcing brevity and succinctness on writers, and I can see it making good jokes into great ones — so I guess Twitter makes me laugh as well. You get to watch people you admire and respect working out material and testing concepts and ideas — like a big funny playground.

What keeps you getting out of bed in the morning?
The firm knowledge that 5,000 equally talented writers are out there waking up and cracking on and working their way up the same hill that I'm climbing. The need to keep up with all those amazing people and not get left behind. That gets me up. And coffee is what keeps me up.

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