It's getting harder to find good help these days. So these space engineers built their own
- By Michael Behar
- Air & Space magazine, July 2005
(Page 2 of 5)
So the call went out to industry: NASA wanted to know if a robotic spacecraft could be built to carry out the servicing mission sans humans before 2008, the year in which the telescope’s batteries and gyroscopes are expected to fail. Akin, whose Ranger had been practicing some of those very tasks for years, answered NASA’s call. So did robotics experts from labs elsewhere in the United States, in Canada, and around the world.
MDRobotics in Brampton, Ontario, submitted one of the most promising proposals. The company had finished construction of Dextre (the nickname for “special-purpose dexterous manipulator”), a remotely operated two-armed robot already ordered to help astronauts service and maintain the International Space Station (ISS). NASA project managers knew that to launch a repair robot by the 2008 deadline, there was no time for research and development. So the agency asked MDRobotics to begin production of a second Dextre that could be launched on an unmanned rocket, then deployed in orbit to complete the tasks originally intended for the shuttle astronauts. Dextre would replace the Hubble’s batteries and gyroscopes, install the spectrograph and camera, and attach a rocket-equipped module that could deorbit Hubble and safely steer it into the ocean at the end of its life.
By last August, engineers at MDRobotics had completed much of the testing on Dextre that NASA required. But the space agency wasn’t ready to give them the green light until it heard from a National Research Council (NRC) panel it had commissioned to evaluate the risks and costs of a servicing mission to Hubble.
The panel’s final report, released last December, more or less concluded that it was impossible for robotic technology to be developed in time to save the Hubble. The committee, which included robotics experts, Nobel-Prize-winning astronomers, and veteran astronauts, relied in part on an exhaustive evaluation done by the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded R&D think tank based in El Segundo, California. That study concluded it would take five and a half years to ready a robotic mission—nearly double what it would take to prepare a shuttle mission, and longer than the telescope’s predicted remaining lifetime.
As a result, NASA killed the Hubble robotic servicing option outright—and, for that matter, a shuttle servicing mission as well. The decision to scrap the telescope angered astronomers, and was a blow to ambitious roboticists like Akin, who’d hoped to prove their stuff by rescuing one of NASA’s most prized possessions. But Akin and others are philosophical, and say that not getting a crack at servicing Hubble is only a short-term setback. They believe that as we extend our reach farther into the Solar System, robots undoubtedly will handle many repair and servicing tasks, help assemble spacecraft in orbit, and even build outposts on the moon and Mars. “We see [robotic] capability being required for future space missions anywhere,” says Dan King, director of robotics at MDRobotics.
In fact, some of the teams that proposed robots to fix Hubble are already pursuing technologies far more sophisticated than those imagined for the Hubble mission. At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, for example, engineers recently added a seven-jointed leg to their humanoid space robot Robonaut. With its new appendage, Robonaut can simulate climbing in zero G. It features a built-in CPU, five-fingered hands, and more than 150 sensors. Project engineers claim that it has dexterity comparable to that of a gloved astronaut and better range of motion. “Robonaut could light birthday candles on my kid’s cake,” quips former project manager Rob Ambrose.
“Humans in space will want to have excellent tools, and some of these will surely be robotic,” says Rud Moe, who manages the Hubble servicing missions at Goddard. “In other cases, the robots will serve very well where humans don’t dare to go—or can’t go.”
After outfitting ourselves in lab smocks, donning white shower caps, and inexplicably jumping up and down on a blue floor mat (I later learn it’s to discharge static), Paul Cooper, vice president of business development and R&D for MDRobotics, takes me inside the company’s 18,000-square-foot clean room. Three enormous Canadian flags hang from the rafters. “Don’t touch anything,” says Cooper, reminding me that even the slightest bit of static could short out one of the many electronic components carefully positioned on lab benches around the room.