NASA launch: Going where no robot has gone before

US$200 million robot will take on most of the maintenance jobs required outside of the space station

Jean noted that the robot should be put together and operational in two weeks. As it's scheduled now, on Flight Day 3, Canadarm 2, which is a large robotic arm that has been on the space station for the past seven years, will reach into the shuttle's cargo bay and bring the pallet with Dextre's parts on it over to the space station.

On Flight Day 4, two astronauts will make a space walk, attaching Dextre's grippers, or hands, to its arms.

On Flight Day 6, two space walkers will attach the arms to the robot's body.

On Flight Day 8, astronauts will attach the machine's tool holder assembly, along with a maneuverable high-resolution color camera with lights.

At that point, Dextre will be ready for testing. The first tests, Jean said, will focus on the brakes in the robot's joints. Once the tests are successfully completed, astronauts will use a power data grapple fixture to attach Dextre's feet to the U.S. lab. It will receive all of its power and data through that attachment.

Dextre, which can move its wrists, elbows and shoulders while also twisting at the waist, can be controlled from inside the space station or from Earth.

Jean said he's not nervous that the robot will be assembled and fully tested for the first time in outer space.

"Everything has been electrically connected. All the signals and all the commands have been tested. It's all been done," he added. "All the mechanical fits, like will the arm fit on the body, have been tested. We don't take any chances on things like that not working. It's never been all assembled and sitting in one place, but everything we can do to test it has been done."

Jean laughed at published reports that a member of the shuttle's crew called Dextre "a little monstrous."

"Dextre is a member of the family. It may look imposing because essentially he was conceived to mimic what the space walker will do in space. He's just taller with longer arms," said Jean. "It's like a dream. You almost want to pinch yourself. It's kind of bittersweet. It's like sending your kids off to college. You want them to go off and make good for themselves but there's a tinge of sadness that they're gone."

As of Monday afternoon, the shuttle was still scheduled to launch at 2:28 a.m. on Tuesday.

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld

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