'R2' humanoid robot to blast off with space shuttle launch
Space shuttle launch on Thursday will include a robotic passenger dexterously designed to make astronauts' lives easier.
Six, you say? Make it 6-1/2.
Sporting a streamlined bronze helmet with an Iron Man-cool reflective visor, plus a white form-fitting uniform that would turn heads at the local gym, that extra half is R2. Think pencil-necked Power Ranger with no legs.
R2 is the waist-up portion of a humanoid robot – a prototype "robonaut" that could become just as at home on a factory assembly line as repairing power converters on the outside of the space station or holding a wrench while an astronaut fixes a cranky Colbert exercise machine.
Indeed, half of the replaceable components on the ISS can only be swapped out by humans in spacesuits, notes Ron Diftler, robonaut project manager at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston. Preparations for spacewalks are time-consuming, and outside the air lock the work is downright dangerous.
"Our goal with robonaut is to build a robot that approaches the dexterity of a spacesuited astronaut," Mr. Diftler says. "Once we do that, that robot has multiple roles."
In addition to taking over some of the more routine spacewalk duties, a robot could relieve astronauts of mundane tasks inside the station. A robot could even serve as a kind of plumber's apprentice.
Sometimes, one crew member is just floating around holding something for another, Diftler says. "Robots will do that and never get bored or ... complain."
Much has been said about the space station as a lab for developing new materials, new pharmaceuticals, and for learning more about how humans respond to living for long periods in microgravity. R2's arrival marks the start of using the station as a lab for experiments in human-robot teamwork that will be necessary in exploring space beyond low-Earth orbit.
"Having the robot up there working both inside ... and outside the vehicle side by side with crew will leave us far better prepared" when human-robot teams head to the moon or Mars, Diftler says.
First out of the workshop and into the Arizona desert was Robonaut 1, aptly named Centaur. Robonaut 1's torso sat at the front of a four-wheeled rover – giving it the look of the mythical creature, but crowned with that futuristic helmet.