‘Great first steps’ for first space station Robonaut

NASA develops robotic helpers for astronauts

A robot never tires or gets bored. Fact is, a robot could stay out in the vacuum of space for days, weeks or even months,
NASA via Reuters
A robot never tires or gets bored. Fact is, a robot could stay out in the vacuum of space for days, weeks or even months,

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Robonaut, the first space humanoid, is finally getting its space legs.

For three years, it has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot — now stuck on a pedestal — is going mobile at the International Space Station.

‘‘Legs are going to really kind of open up the robot’s horizons,’’ said Robert Ambrose of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.


It’s the next big step in NASA’s quest to develop robotic helpers for astronauts. With legs, the 8-foot Robonaut will be able to climb throughout the 260-mile-high outpost, performing mundane cleaning chores and fetching things for the human crew.

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The robot’s gangly, contortionist-bending legs are packed aboard a SpaceX supply ship that launched Friday, more than a month late. It was the private company’s fourth shipment to the space station for NASA and is due to arrive Easter Sunday morning.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s unmanned capsule, Dragon, holds about 2 tons of space station supplies and experiments, Robonaut’s legs included.

Until a battery backpack arrives on another supply ship later this year, the multimillion-dollar robot will need a power extension cord to stretch its legs, limiting its testing area to the US side of the space station. Testing should start in a few months.

Each leg — 4 feet 8 inches long — has seven joints. Instead of feet, there are grippers, each with a light, camera, and sensor for building 3-D maps.


‘‘Imagine monkey feet with eyes in the palm of each foot,’’ Ambrose said.

NASA engineers based the design on the tether attachments used by spacewalking astronauts. The legs cost $6 million to develop and another $8 million to build and certify for flight. The torso with head and arms delivered by space shuttle Discovery in 2011 on its final flight cost $2.5 million, not counting the untold millions of dollars spent on development and testing.

Ambrose acknowledges the legs are ‘‘a little creepy’’ when they move because of the number of joints and the range of motion. ‘‘I hope my knee never bends that many degrees, but Robonaut has no problems at all,’’ said Ambrose, chief of the software, robotics, and simulation division at Johnson.

The grippers will latch onto handrails inside the space station, keeping Robonaut’s hands free for working and carrying things. Expect slow going: just inches a second. If Robonaut bumps into something, it will pause. A good shove will shut it down. ‘‘The robot’s not going to have as much fun as the astronauts,’’ Ambrose said. ‘‘No jumping, no somersaults, no flying.’’

NASA’s space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, cautioned Friday that there’s still ‘‘quite a ways to go’’ before future Robonauts make spacewalk repairs like the computer replacement job coming up Wednesday for the two US station astronauts. Software is the biggest challenge, he said, but ‘‘these are great first steps.’’