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Spec Tech: Space Shuttles are People Too

November 4, 2010

I’m here at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week to watch the last
launch of Space Shuttle Discovery. This represents (nearly) the end of an era for
manned spaceflight both in this country and the world.

The space shuttle was in many ways inspired by science fiction, and vice versa,
I mean it’s a space plane. How cool is that? On this flight the shuttle is
delivering Robonaut 2, the first humanoid robot in space.

Robonaut 2—or R2—looks like a movie prop. It’s a torso with arms and a head made
from aluminum and covered with a white cloth material…a shirt. It can be
instructed to hold items or do simple manipulations like opening storage drawers.
The motors on R2 can either be instructed to make joints stiff or loose. This is
different from other industrial robots because you can bump into the arm R2 and it will
safely give. On the other hand if you were in a car factory and got in the way of
a robotic arm it will keep pushing right through you. This makes R2 safe to work with
in tight environments and satisfies Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics.

The other cargo on the shuttle are some of the final parts for the International Space
Station. There will be a large storage and living space named leonardo and a experiment
and storage platform that will sit on the ouside of the station.

Thanks to the awesome people at NASA — some I have been lucky enough to meet —
spaceflight is still an exciting and interesting world. NASA TV may be dull but the
stories the people tell who actually work here and fantastic. Once, the can openers
wore out on the station (astrounauts food comes in cans too!) but mission controllers
decided the sharp edges from normal openers could be “dangerous.” This was annoying to
the astronauts who just wanted to eat, so one of the handlers went to the grocery store
and bought a 2 dollar can opener and snuck it on the next flight.

I’m here with 150 other excited people waiting for the launch (delayed because of weather)
but I’m remided of the opsesion and enthusiasm that space brings out in people. And
I’ve been reminded of the human angle, the astronauts are just normal people and their
stories about the can opener, or the fact that all the shuttles have a cerimonial key,
are testaments to how the personal story is the part of science that people really love to hear.

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