Health & Science

First "Humanoid" Robot in Space

Space shuttle Discovery just delivered a very special passenger to the International Space Station. It’s a humanoid robot, meaning one that is shaped roughly like a human being and is designed to work side-by-side with humans. KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel has this profile.


To embed this piece of audio in your site, please use this code:

<iframe src="" style="height: 115px; width: 100%;"></iframe>

He’s called Robonaut.

You know. Robot combined with astronaut.

Robotic machines of various sorts already exist in space, but they are simply fancy tools — like the giant robotic arm attached to the outside of the space station. This is the first robot in space that looks and moves like a human being.

Rob Ambrose is with NASA:

“The robot will first demonstrate its ability to do tasks with its hands in zero G — for us that will be mission success.”

As you heard, the focus is on the hands. That’s because Robonaut doesn’t have any legs.

View photos on Flickr

He’s an upper body mounted on a pedestal. He looks like a suited-up football player: bulky and padded, and wearing a gold motorcycle helmet.

In a few months, astronauts will unpack Robonaut, set him up inside the Space Station, and begin testing his ability to work in zero gravity. Robonaut has sensors in his arms and hands that allow him to hold objects, manipulate fabric and even write. Eventually, NASA hopes to mount Robonaut on legs so he can climb around the Space Station.

One idea is that Robonaut could step in during an emergency on the station. Discovery astronaut Michael Barrett described a few possibilities:

“Whether you had a suspected fire or a toxic release and what you needed was a switch throw or to discharge a fire extinguisher into the right fire port, that’s the kind of thing we could eventually envision sending Robonaut in to do. A couple of those scenarios, I’d much rather send a robot in than go in myself on a gas mask.”

Another plan is to have Robonaut perform tedious tasks, much like a servant or maid. Astronauts welcomed this idea, because they spend hours on the space station wiping down handrails with antiseptic and vacuuming dirt out of air filters.

Discovery astronaut Nicole Stott:

“Those would definitely be the kind of tasks that if you could turn it over to a robot, I think that the advantage to that would be is that it would open you up for more time for science activities or for taking an opportunity to look out the window and do some earth observation photography.”

NASA officials describe various futures for Robonaut. He could be sent ahead of humans to an asteroid or planet or distant moon. And he could stay there, in cold, air-less environments where humans could not survive for long.

Again, Rob Ambrose:

“The robot would be left behind as a caretaker to run longer-term experiments maybe set up by the crew and then tended by the robot.”

But don’t think he’ll be lonely. Robonaut already has a Twitter feed up and going.

From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

All images are courtesy of NASA.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required