For decades boys and girls have dreamed of becoming astronauts when they grow up. Now young assembly-line robots and claw vending machines can share the same dream with news that NASA plans to send Robonaut 2 (R2) into space. R2 will be the first human-like robot in space when it is launched on the space shuttle Discovery later this year to become a permanent resident of the International Space Station (ISS).
Developed jointly by NASA and General Motors (GM) under a cooperative agreement to develop a robotic assistant that can work alongside humans the 300-pound R2 consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands. Once aboard the station R2 will be confined to operations in the station's Destiny laboratory where engineers will monitor how the robot operates in weightlessness. However, future enhancements and modifications may allow it to move more freely around the station's interior or outside the complex.
Besides looking like a human, the dexterous robot is also designed to work like one. With human-like hands and arms, R2 is able to use the same tools station crew members use. In the future, the greatest benefits of humanoid robots in space may be as assistants or stand-in for astronauts during spacewalks or for tasks too difficult or dangerous for humans. For now, R2 is still a prototype and does not have adequate protection needed to exist outside the space station in the extreme temperatures of space.
Testing the robot inside the station will provide an important intermediate environment. R2 will be tested in microgravity and subjected to the station's radiation and electromagnetic interference environments. The interior operations will provide performance data about how a robot may work side-by-side with astronauts. As development activities progress on the ground, station crews may be provided hardware and software to update R2 to enable it to do new tasks.
With the controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s cancellation earlier this year of the planned mission to return man to the moon in favor of projects that include climate science and new technologies for space exploration using robots NASA has emphasized that R2 isn’t intended to replace humans in space, but to work alongside them.
"This project exemplifies the promise that a future generation of robots can have both in space and on Earth, not as replacements for humans but as companions that can carry out key supporting roles," said John Olson, director of NASA's Exploration Systems Integration Office at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The combined potential of humans and robots is a perfect example of the sum equaling more than the parts. It will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today."
R2 is undergoing extensive testing in preparation for its flight. Vibration, vacuum and radiation testing along with other procedures being conducted on R2 also benefit the team at GM. The automaker plans to use technologies from R2 in future advanced vehicle safety systems and manufacturing plant applications.
R2 is scheduled to head to the ISS on the space shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission planned for September.