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

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

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."

Mathieu Caron, supervisor for the Canadian Space Agency's mission-control team, said assembling Dextre and getting the robot operational was just the first step in a whole new era of using robotics in space.

"This was essential," said Caron, who will help operate Dextre from the ground. "This will allow us to look and touch the outside of the space station without having to go out. The assembly of the space station is not possible without robotics. End of story. And for maintenance, it will play a critical role."

Caron noted that the space shuttle will be launched again this summer, taking a crew to do maintenance work on the Hubble Telescope. Engineers originally had considered sending up a robot to do all the work -- a remote-controlled satellite with robotic arms that could attach itself to the telescope and do all the maintenance work -- but decided against it.

"I saw the simulations and the hardware they tested, and it was fascinating," he added. "It's remarkable how much you can do robotically. That opens wide how much we can do with space robotics."

Allard also said the future of space exploration will be tied directly to robotics.

"We're testing out new equipment and new techniques that have never been tried before," he added. "The work we're doing on the space station sets us up for more work in the future."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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