NASA’s Space Station Robot Gets Legs

Robonaut, installed on the International Space Station to perform chores for astronauts, just got its first pair of real legs.

The latest SpaceX delivery to the International Space Station (ISS), which took off on Friday from Cape Canaveral, included some unusual cargo: legs for NASA’s robotic space station helper.


Robonaut 2 (R2) is a humanoid robot NASA placed on the space station to automate tasks such as cleaning and routine maintenance. Until now, Robonaut navigated the ISS on wheels–but thanks to a brand-new pair of springy, bendy legs, the space station’s helper robot will now be able to walk, climb, and perform a variety of new chores, as the video above shows.

NASA says that the new seven-jointed legs are designed for climbing in zero gravity and offer a considerable nine-foot leg span. Instead of feet, the legs feature “end effectors” designed to grapple onto handrails and sockets located both inside the space station and, eventually, on the ISS’s exterior. Robonaut’s end effectors have a built-in vision system–almost like a pair of eyes–that are designed to eventually automate each limb’s approaching and grasping.

These robotic legs don’t come cheap. According to the space agency, the legs cost $6 million to develop and an additional $8 million to construct and test for spaceflight. The gangly legs take their design inspiration from the tethers astronauts use while spacewalking.

Robonaut was developed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in collaboration with General Motors and off-shore oil field robotics firm Oceaneering. All that corporate involvement isn’t accidental; Robonaut isn’t designed to simply do chores around the space station. NASA is also using R2 to showcase a range of patented technologies that private companies can license from Johnson Space Center.

The humanoid, task-performing robot is also a NASA technology showcase. In a webcast, the space agency advertised its potential uses in logistics warehouses, medical and industrial robotics, and in toxic or hazardous environments. As NASA dryly puts it, “R2 shares senses similar to humans: the ability to touch and see. These senses allow it to perform in ways that are not typical for robots today.”

Robonaut’s legs were part of a larger supply flight to the ISS on a Dragon spacecraft that included a laser communication system for astronauts and an outer space farming system designed to grow lettuce and other salad crops in orbit.