Moon Society Heralds Dawn of Human-Robonaut Space Age

Moon Society Heralds Dawn of Human-Robonaut Space Age

From Peter Kokh

March 17, 2011 - Today, St. Patrick's Day, the ISS crew unpacked the first Roboanaut Crew Member, also known as R2.

"Patrick" came aboard in his container with the last Discovery Mission, February 25, 2011. Over the coming months, this first robonaut in space will be put through the paces as human crew members learn how to work with him.

NASA plans on periodically upgrading R2, it will be attached to a pedestal on the space station and it will work in place. By year’s end, one or two legs may be installed to allow R2 to move around the station. A single leg could be easily attached to the robotic arm outside the space station so it can assist astronauts during spacewalks. In time, R2 could relieve astronauts of EVA assignments. Unlike humans, robonauts will not have to go through time-consuming pre-breathing steps. EVAs are risky and tiring. He doesn't need rest, food, relaxation, recreation. So one robonaut can do the work of two or more, at far less maintenance expense, greatly increasing overall crew productivity. Robonauts will be in the forefront of lunar and Martian outpost construction, and take over many surface activities for which humans would have to wear heavy spacesuits, and need to be regularly relieved.

In late, 2004, after having just been elected President of the Moon Society, I brought up the idea of the Society sponsoring a workshop on “Human-Robotic Synergistics” only to be ridiculed by a newly elected director. Shortly after, he resigned. The point was, and is, that the debate over whether humans or robots should explore space is pointless and absurd. Our respective assets are quite complementary. We will do far more, reach farther out, together than either could separately.

Robotics has come a long way in the past six years! And the promise is becoming real. Robotic assist-ants can relieve humans of tasks that are dangerous, boring, tiring, repetitious, etc. And they do not need life support, rest, entertainment, or socializing. They will not only pave the way for humans, but work side-by-side with humans after crews arrive, with future settlers also.

Whether the word “robonaut” sticks, or becomes replaced with the earlier “’droids” (short for androids) is immaterial. The evolution of humans and robots working together is now well underway. Robotic assistants can take care of chores that are boring, tedious, repetitious, and/or dangerous. They do not need food, rest, sports, relaxation, or entertainment. They do not require life-support in transit or on the job. They do not produce wastes that need to be treated and recycled.

As for R2, the coming year will see it undergoing tests to make sure the trip to the space station caused it no trouble. Astronauts aboard the station will have a chance to get used to R2 and learn to work with it/him. In time, both will become comfortable working together. We need to get to the point where we can trust robonauts as reliable helpmates. No one can predict how long that will take, as adjustments in the robonaut’s capacities and abilities may be needed. In the real world, needs emerge which might not have been foreseen.

One big challenge for NASA engineers has been to retrofit all of the robot's electronics to withstand radiation in space. They also worked to make Robonaut 2 as "smart" as possible. R2 has some 38 Power PC process-source, including 36 embedded ones. The embedded chips are running in the machine's joints: its hands, shoulders, waist, elbows, neck and five large joints in each arm.

What’s ahead?

We can expect to see robonauts fully integrated into ISS crews, becoming comfortable and reliable as partners, with a significant increase in overall mission productivity. Meanwhile, we will probably see robonauts become common in upper income households (as in the Jetsons cartoon series.) The “humans vs. robots” debate will become a curiosity of history. Both sides will have won, and the future of space activities will unfold more quickly and at less expense.

Some science fiction scenarios foresee humans in danger of replacement. Some see “Borg-like” transformations of humans. We see robonauts becoming faithful and enabling companions to humans, a path that dogs have been down long ago. Robonauts will hasten and deepen the pioneer settlement of space frontiers. Science-fiction stories that do not include this partnership will become "dated". We have lived to see the day when this brighter, more promising future was introduced!   

In recent issues of Moon Miners' Manifesto and MMM-India Quaterly, several articles on this subject have been featured. Look for this new space age to become ever more exciting and to unfold at an ever accelerated space, thanks to our new enabling companions.

Robonauts will help us open the Lunar and Martian frontiers. They will become even more essential as we pioneer ever more extreme environments: Mercury, Venus, Ceres, Europa, Titan, and beyond. We head into ever more exciting times!