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February 22, 2011

Space Shuttle Discovery to Carry Robot on Final Mission

by Greg Flakus

Crews at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida are preparing the Space Shuttle Discovery for its final launch, scheduled for Thursday.

Among the things it will carry to the International Space Station will be a humanlike robot designed to help astronauts aboard the station carry out several common tasks.  The device might pave the way for greater use of robotics in space exploration.

The Discovery crew will consist of six humans and one robot called "Robonaut 2."  It is not really a member of the crew; in fact it will be stowed away in the cargo compartment until Discovery links up with the space station.  But the The 120-kilogram robot does have a certain star quality.

It consists of a head that looks like a sleek metallic-looking helmet, a torso, two arms and two hands with fingers that operate much like human digits.

Robonaut Lead Mechanical Engineer Josh Mehling, who helped develop Robonaut 2 for NASA, says the arms and hands of the device exert the right force to hold, rather than crush, any item the robot picks up.

"Throughout the robot's arm, it has the ability to sense the forces it is exerting on the environment or the environment is exerting on it.  And the five-fingered hand also has tactile sensing throughout the finger sections, so it can feel what it is touching," he said.

Mehling says Robonaut 2 is capable of carrying out several tasks aboard the space station that otherwise would take up human astronaut time and energy. "The robot could be used to set up a work site for an astronaut or to tear down a work site or to just hold things for the astronaut.  Really, the goal  going forward is that a system like Robonaut could free up the astronauts to be doing the real hard science that requires the human brain in the loop," he said.

Robots have long been used in space exploration and in manufacturing back on Earth.  But the use of a robot that resembles a human being on the space station recalls the robots of science fiction books and movies, that often have human attributes.  One characteristic of humans is to relate to animals, plants and even mechanical devices as if they are humans, what psychologists call anthropomorphizing.

Josh Mehling says the Discovery crew had a chance to work with Robonaut 2 in the lab at the Johnson Space Center here in Houston and has, to some extent, bonded with it. "They enjoyed working with it and taking pictures with it.  They really sort of adopted Robonaut 2 as a part of their crew and, while I am not a social psychologist, I think the crews on the space station will enjoy the company of a humanoid robot," he said.

In addition to the robot, Discovery will carry a storage module and supplies to the space station.  The 11-day journey will be the 39th and final mission of the oldest space shuttle. iscovery was first launched in 1984 and has since flown close to 230 million kilometers. The shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis are scheduled to make their final flights later this year.

Related video report by Rosanne Skirble: