Endeavour mission: 3,400-lb. robot survived shuttle launch

Nine robotic components intact after liftoff; Dextre's assembly set to begin tomorrow

With the robotic components seemingly intact after the shaking and rattling of the space shuttle Endeavour's launch this week, astronauts are preparing to start assembling the giant two-armed machine tomorrow night.

When it lifted off early Tuesday morning, the shuttle was carrying the makings of a 3,400-lb., 12-foot-tall robot with a 30-foot wingspan in its cargo bay. The robot, named Dextre by its creators at the Canadian Space Agency, is designed to tackle many of the maintenance jobs outside of the International Space Station. Officials expect that the robot will cut the number of dangerous space walks required of the astronauts.

"It looks perfectly fine in the cargo bay," said Allard Beutel, a spokesman for NASA. "The crew is still inside the cabin, but we took a look at [Dextre] with a camera in the cargo bay."

He added, laughing, "Well, it's still in the cargo bay, so that's a good sign."

Beutel told Computerworld that the agency won't have a firm grip on how well the robotics components held up during the launch and trip to the space station until they are moved from the Endeavour's cargo bay to attachments on the outside of the space station after its arrival later tonight. There, astronauts will get a good look at the robot when they head outside to begin assembling its nine components.

People will be able to watch the various assembly steps on NASA TV, according to Beutel.

As it's scheduled now, the Endeavour is set to dock to the International Space Station at 11:26 p.m. EDT tonight. Then late Thursday night, Canadarm 2, a large robotic arm that has been on the space station for the past seven years, will reach into the shuttle's cargo bay and bring the pallet with Dextre's parts on it over to the space station. The actual assembly is set to begin on Friday when two astronauts go out to attach Dextre's grippers -- or hands -- to its arms.

The $200 million robot has a sense of touch and two 11-foot arms, said Pierre Jean, acting program manager of the Canadian Space Station program. Dextre can work with objects as large as a phone booth or as small as a phone book, he said.

Dextre was designed to make sure the International Space Station keeps working," Jean said earlier this week. "There are 138 boxes on the outside of the space station. They're primarily the electronics behind the backbone of the space station, like remote power-controller modules, DC-to-DC converter units and a nitrogen tank assembly. These are the boxes that Dextre can work on. When some of these big electronic boxes fail and systems are affected, the station could be reduced in functionality. Dextre could go off and fix it and keep the International Space Station running at full capacity."

The robot is expected to be assembled, tested and running before the shuttle crew's 16-day mission is over.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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