CAPE CANAVERAL — Space is about to get its first humanoid robot from planet Earth.
Robonaut 2 — affectionately known as R2 — is hitching a one-way ride to the International Space Station this week aboard the final flight of space shuttle Discovery.
It’s the first humanoid robot ever bound for space, a $2.5 million mechanical and electrical marvel that NASA hopes one day will assist flesh-and-bone astronauts in orbit.
Imagine, its creators say, a future where Robonaut could take over space station cleaning duties, spend hours outside in the extreme heat and cold, patiently holding tools for spacewalking astronauts, and handle emergencies like toxic leaks or fires.
Robonaut’s descendants could even scout out asteroids, Mars and other worlds in the decades ahead, paving the way for humans.
The adventure begins Wednesday afternoon, with the planned final launch of Discovery and Robonaut’s six human crewmates. Mission managers gave the green light Monday for the new launch date; shuttle gas leaks had to be repaired before the countdown could begin and forced a two-day delay.
“While it might be just a single step for this robot, it’s really a giant leap forward for tin-mankind,” said Rob Ambrose, acting chief of Johnson Space Center’s automation, robotics and simulation division in Houston.
For now, R2 — a collaboration between NASA and General Motors — exists only from the waist up. It measures 3 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 330 pounds. Each arm is 2 feet 8 inches long.
Legs are still in the works. But, oh, what an upper body: perfectly toned arms and hands with palms, a robotic rarity, along with broad shoulders and a washboard stomach. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hollywood’s cyborg Terminator, would be proud.
Unlike people who tend to cheat, “this robot will really do what the physical trainers tell you to do, which is to do the bicep curls nice and slow,” he said.
Made of aluminum and nickel-plated carbon fiber, the torso and arms are padded to protect Robonaut and the astronauts, all the way down to the five fingers on each hand. No metal, bony-looking fingers for this robot.
R2 will be on board when the space station stops operating sometime after 2020 and NASA sends it hurtling toward a grave in the Pacific.