Robots in Space: A GM/NASA Production [Video]

Robonaut 2 reports for duty next week aboard the space shuttle Discovery.


This robot is going into outer space.

That’s pretty much the story right there, but feel free to stick around for further details. Its name is R2, short for Robonaut 2, and it’s the product of a collaboration between GM and NASA that began back in 2007.

Next week, R2 is scheduled to blast off, together with a couple human astronauts, on the last journey of the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station. The launch was set for Monday, but an air leak set that back by a day at least (the launch is now scheduled for Wednesday November 3).

Why put a robot in space? First of all, why not? But secondly, and probably more important with respect to funding decisions, the idea is that R2, or a robot like him, will some day be able to help out with tasks aboard the space station. He’s not ready yet–this is the first time a humanoid robot has been to space, and the NASA/GM team want to see how the 300-pound guy handles zero gravity, let alone the vacuum of empty space.


“This is really a test,” GM’s principal robotics engineer Marty Linn tells Fast Company. All of R2’s programs will be initiated by humans. Initially R2 will be bolted to the floor (or the wall, or the ceiling, depending on your point of view), and his operations will be initiated by human operators, who will be testing how R2 handles requests to flip switches and buttons in a minimal gravity environment. “They’re not going to operate anything, not initially,” Linn says of these switches–though the vision is to eventually have a humanoid robot capable of filling in some duties normally executed by a human, and even to have a robot built to help out on spacewalks.

As we reported back in February, R2 is also designed to be able to assist in a car manufacturing plant. R2 has “real-world applicability”–not just out-of-this-world applicability–emphasizes a GM press release.

What’s with the name? Is it a sci-fi nod to R2-D2? No, chuckles Linn, “though I’m a science fiction fan myself” (he notes that if anything, R2 more closely resembles C-3PO). It’s simply the logical sequel to the first Robonaut, a decade-old NASA/DARPA project. “I think the sci-fi aspects of HAL and computers going crazy and taking things over, Skynet and the Terminator … that’s a little bit far-fetched,” says Linn.

R2 seems to have volatile emotions, however. As you can see here, depending on its mood (or the moods of GM’s press photographers), R2 is alternately patriotic, histrionic, or insecure.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.