Meet NASA’s Newest Astronaut, R2

Robot to Join Space Station Crew
Let the next phase of science fiction becoming reality begin. Later this year, NASA is going to be launching the first human-like robot into space to become the International Space Station's newest permanent resident. Developed jointly by NASA and General Motors, the 300-lb Robonaut 2, or R2, consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands, and functions as a robotic assistant to work alongside humans -- whether it's with astronauts in space or workers at a manufacturing plant.

R2 will launch in September on space shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission. Once aboard the space station the robot will be confined to operations in the Destiny laboratory, where engineers will monitor how it operates in weightlessness. Enhancements and modifications in the future, however, may allow it to move more freely around the station's interior or outside the complex.

"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," says 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." -John Olson

The dexterous robot not only looks like a human but also is designed to work like one, using the same tools station crewmembers use. In the future, the greatest benefits of humanoid robots in space may be as assistants or stand-ins for astronauts during spacewalks or for tasks that are 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.

R2 is currently 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.

"The extreme levels of testing R2 has undergone, as it prepares to venture to the International Space Station, are on par with the validation our vehicles and components go through on the path to production," says Alan Taub, vice president of GM's global research and development. "The work done by GM and NASA engineers also will help us validate manufacturing technologies that will improve the health and safety of our team members at our manufacturing plants throughout the world. Partnerships between organizations such as GM and NASA help ensure space exploration, road travel and manufacturing can become even safer in the future."

Given the newest edition to the robot family,
what types of things would you like to see future robots do?