Cheap Trip to the Moon

Sending humans to the moon may be a bit costly for the U.S. government, but the government has found a less expensive substitute: robots.

Last year, Congress scrapped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Constellation space exploration program projected at $150 billion. It would’ve sent astronauts to the moon. NASA next offered a cheaper alternative within the price range of $200 million – a project that could land a humanoid robot on the moon in a thousand days.

This concept is known as Project M. The goal is to have humanoid robots work alongside or stand-in for astronauts during spacewalks or tasks too dangerous for humans. What’s on the space shuttle Discovery’s STS-133 mission is a prototype – half of a human-like robot, Robonaut 2 or R2.

“R2 will be the first humanoid robot to reach orbit and the first American-built robot at the space station,” NASA announced.

NASA and automaker General Motors (GM) with the help of engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston, Texas, started creating the robot in 2007 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. GM plans to use technologies from the robot in “future advanced vehicle safety systems and manufacturing plant applications,” NASA explained in a statement.

“When it comes to future vehicles, the advancements in controls, sensors and vision technology can be used to develop advanced vehicle safety systems. The partnership’s vision is to explore advanced robots working together in harmony with people, building better, higher quality vehicles in a safer, more competitive manufacturing environment,” explained Alan Taub, GM’s vice president for global research and development, in a General Motors statement.

It’s not the first time the two have worked together. They partnered in the development of the navigation systems for the Apollo mission and the Lunar Rover Vehicle.

R2 weighs about 300 pounds and has a head, torso, two arms and two human-like hands. It doesn’t have the adequate protection to bear the extreme temperatures of space, and therefore it’s confined to the station’s Destiny laboratory. Some enhancements and changes in the future, though, will allow it to move more freely around the station’s interior or outside complex, according to NASA.

Tests for R2 are adminstered in preparation and during the flight. These preparations include vibrations, vacuums and radiation, and in-flight engineers monitor its exposure to radiation and electromagnetic interference environments in the microgravity environment within the station. The robot will also be busy sending out tweets on Twitter about its work aboard the International Space Station. R2 will get hardware and software as development activities progress.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Chang of the New York Times reported last fall that “work continues on Project M, which has cost about $9 million, so far.”

What other industry will robots similar to R2 appear? Do you think astronauts will be replaced by more R2s?

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