CHRONICLING THE ROBOT INDUSTRY

Robots to Replace Space Shuttle Astronauts

I still remember marveling at the Space Shuttle being transported on a Boeing 747 in February 1977, it is with great sadness that I write of its demise today. Yes, after a 30 year run, the Obama administration is shutting down the Space Shuttle program this Friday.  The countdown has already begin with Atlantis on the launch pad…

We have all heard that Robots are replacing autoworkers, broadway musicians, and even train conductors, but the latest jobs on the chopping blocks could be the guys/gals we thought had the “right stuff.”  Courtesy of General Motors Robonaut 2, or R2, is the latest passenger on the International Space Station. R2 is a “robotic assistant” that is designed to work alongside his human counterparts.

In one corner, we have R2 weighing in at 300 pounds with a head, torso and just two arms (no legs, yet).  In the other corner, his  human “masters” that will be observing how well he can operate in a weightlessness environment which would lead the way for future Robot/human teamwork.  John Olson, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Integration Office at NASA Headquarters in Washington, stated that “the combined potential of humans and robots is a perfect example of the sum equaling more than the parts. It will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today.”  How true, the R2 (and his descendants) can take on tasks thought to be too dangerous for humans, from extreme temperatures on Venus to radioactive sun spots.

All of this makes a lot of sense, yet I still go back to the boyhood wonder of 1977.  We had just conquered the moon, and now man was ready to explore space with his own “Enterprise.”   Mankind’s ingenuity ruled the world, if not the Galaxy, and nothing was beyond our grasp.  This Friday, we begin transferring the wheel to autopilot with armies of R2’s.  My fear is that GM’s robots not only will do the dirty work but will become our future Magellans.

Even today, Atlantis’ scheduled flight is in peril due to storm clouds overhead.  NASA might have to bump the Shuttle for an unmanned drone.  Is this a premonition of the future of Space Exploration? If so, Scotty beam me up!