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NASA shuttle's return is 'just the beginning' for space robotics

Scientists say further moves into solar system will require a human/robot partnership

March 26, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - As the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour gets ready to return home tonight after a 16-day mission, scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Canadian Space Agency credits it with taking the first step in a robotic partnership that will help humans press further out into the solar system.

The Endeavour and its crew of seven astronauts are slated to land tonight at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The crew set a record for running the longest mission of space-station construction -- delivering a Japanese lab to the International Space Station and assembling a 3,400-lb., 12-foot-tall robot.

"The work we're doing now -- the robotics we're doing -- is what we're going to need to do to build any work station or habitat structure on the moon or Mars," said Allard Beutel, a spokesman for NASA. "Yes, this is just the beginning."

Further joint human-robot projects will "be a symbiotic relationship. It's part of a long-term effort for us to branch out into the solar system. We're going to need this type of hand-in-robotic-hand [effort] to make this happen. We're in the infancy of space exploration. We have to start somewhere and this is as good a place as any."

The astronauts worked with a ground crew of engineers from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to get the $200 million robot, named Dextre, assembled and operational. With two arms and a wingspan of 30 feet, Dextre is designed to do maintenance on the outside of the space station, cutting down on the number of dangerous space walks the astronauts will have to perform. The robot was built by the Canadian Space Agency.

Pierre Jean, acting program manager of the Canadian space station program, called Dextre (pronounced "Dexter"), the "most sophisticated space robot to ever to be launched."

While Canadian engineers worked for 10 years to create Dextre, it never was fully assembled on Earth because the robot would have been crushed under its own weight.

That means the first time it was fired up as a complete unit was when it was 220 miles above the Earth outside a space station orbiting at 15,700 mph. And all didn't go perfectly. A faulty cable kept power and instructions from flowing from the space station to Dextre for a few days. But engineers quickly diagnosed the problem and worked around it.

"We have to learn how to deal with [problems]," said Beutel. "Until you actually get it up there and experience the 250 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun and negative 200 degrees in the shade, you just don't know what it will be like to work on it until you're up there. Sometimes you just have to go up there and do it. We learned what to do when you get a curveball 220 miles above the Earth."

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