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Robonaut was designed to work outside the space station so that astronauts wouldn't have to. Despite its sophistication, its only work to date has been in the lab. (NASA)

Robo Repairmen

It's getting harder to find good help these days. So these space engineers built their own

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Ambrose hopes NASA’s recent focus on building a lunar base could change things. Recently his team removed the robot’s single zero-G leg and mounted its torso to a mobile platform based on the Segway scooter. They wired Robonaut’s computer interface directly into the Segway’s control system, giving the robot control over its balance and motion. “We would like to put our robots in a precursor role: setting up a work site or habitat on the moon,” says Ambrose, who is now looking for a four- or six-wheel platform suitable for rough lunar terrain. “If I were going to be sent to the moon, I would want my habitat already making oxygen, already 72 degrees, holding air, and not leaking.”

Back at the University of Maryland, Ranger’s successors continue making dives in the neutral buoyancy tank, but now Akin is adapting them for more generic work. His team is also working with NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology Experiment Program to develop a Ranger-type robot that could collect planetary samples—perhaps on Jupitor’s moon Europa.

As for Hubble, the new NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, may reverse his predecessor’s decision on a shuttle rescue, but has come out against letting robots save the 15-year-old telescope. No matter—the machines’ day will almost certainly come. That’s another advantage robots have over humans: They’re endlessly patient.

About Michael Behar

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Behar (michaelbehar.com) writes about aerospace, adventure travel, science, and the environment.

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