March 15, 2011
Science fiction stories are littered with human-like robots that entertain our flights of fancy, such as the friendly, streamlined servant Robbie in Forbidden Planet. And when it comes to the robots that are actually being used in space, they are similarly machines of servitude, enhancing scientists’ abilities to explore our solar system. But NASA narrowed the gap between science fiction and science fact when they sent Robonaut 2 (R2), the first humanoid robot, into outer space. The Robonaut apparently has the ability to move its fingers purposefully, a capability called “dexterous manipulation.” It can hold tools and work alongside humans or go places where no man (or woman) has gone before.
“Many robots have operated in space as planetary scouts and rovers, and as extra eyes and arms for astronauts,” says National Air and Space Museum curator Dr. Valerie Neal. “Most of these robots look and act like machines, not like humans. Robonaut is a more sophisticated human-like robot that is capable of acting more like a human, to serve as a true assistant or partner. It is a dexterous robot; that is, it has arms, hands, and eyes that enable it to do certain useful motions, like holding equipment and handling tools. Robonaut is the first humanoid robot in space.”
A 300-pound Robonaut, R2B, was flown up to the International Space Station on February 24; however, it has yet to be unpacked so astronauts can put it to work. “The more capably it performs,” Neal says, “the more likely it will be able to enhance human activity while people live and work in space, first in orbit and maybe eventually on the Moon or Mars. As more is learned and capabilities are improved, future Robonauts might be sent to visit asteroids or farther planets and moons, in advance of (or instead of) human explorers. NASA is thinking of Robonaut as another member of the crew and will attempt to use it to do some of the tasks that astronauts usually do.” And in addition to outer space operations, this robot technology may also be used in the automotive industry here on Earth.
Visitors coming to the National Air and Space Museum on Wednesday, March 16 will see R2B’s identical twin, R2A. Accompanied by an operator, you will see a demonstration of the robot’s range of motion and ability to pick up and handle tools and respond to commands. The presentation will also include a video showing the R2 robots working with astronauts and engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center robotics lab. In the meantime, you can read more about NASAs robonauts and check out a “movie trailer” for this modern technological marvel, which makes it seem all the more unreal than the stuff we’re used to seeing on the screen.
Robonaut2 (R2) will conduct live demonstrations of its human-like motion and demonstrate its strength and dexterity. The robot’s NASA management team will also be on hand to answer questions. 10:30, 11:30 AM and at 1 and 2 PM at the National Air and Space Museum on Wednesday, March 16.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.