Star Wars Meets UPS as Robonaut Packed for Space

Getting into space isn't necessarily easy for astronauts, and it's not much easier for a robotic astronaut, either.

Cocooned inside an aluminum frame and foam blocks cut out to its shape, Robonaut 2, or R2, is heading to the International Space Station inside the Permanent Multipurpose Module in space shuttle Discovery's payload bay as part of the STS-133 mission.

Once in place inside the station, R2, with its humanlike hands and arms and stereo vision, is expected to perform some of the repetitive or more mundane functions inside the orbiting laboratory to free astronauts for more complicated tasks and experiments. It could one day also go along on spacewalks.

Making sure the first humanoid robot to head into space still works when it gets there has been the focus of workers at NASA's Kennedy and Johnson space centers. Engineers and technicians with decades of experience among them packing for space have spent the last few months devising a plan to secure the 330-pound machine against the fierce vibrations and intense gravity forces during launch.

"I think back in May we realized we had a huge challenge on our hands," said Michael Haddock, a mechanical engineer designing the procedures and other aspects of preparing R2 for launch, including careful crane operations inside the Space Station Processing Facility's high bay.

Though it was fast-paced, intense work, the payoff of getting to help R2 into space added extra motivation for the engineers involved.

By spaceflight standards, planning for the packing effort moved quite quickly, particularly considering R2 is perhaps the heaviest payload to be taken into space inside a cargo module.

"The mass is what's driving the crane operations, otherwise we'd be handling the robot by hand," Haddock said. "But the robot itself weighs on the order of 333 pounds and when it is installed in the structural launch enclosure, it will weigh over 500 pounds."

As they must when loading anything for spaceflight, the engineers designed the packaging so astronauts could easily remove R2 from its launch box, known by its acronym SLEEPR or Structural Launch Enclosure to Effectively Protect Robonaut.

"We were trying to do something very unique and very fast," said Scott Higginbotham, payload manager for the STS-133 mission. "And we've got the best team in the world for dealing with things like that."

There was talk of simply strapping the robot into the empty seat on the shuttle's middeck, Higginbotham said, but R2 was too heavy for that. So the teams came up with a plan to fasten R2 to a base plate and use struts to support the back and shoulders. Then dense foam will provide more support, followed by an aluminum frame. A clamshell of foam tops off the package.

Assembling the packing precisely is important for R2 because a space shuttle accelerates to more than three times the force of gravity during its eight-minute climb into orbit.

"The team had to educate ourselves, learn the uniqueness of it as well as learn how to install it into the vehicle," said Ken Koby, lead systems engineer for Boeing. "That's what the team has basically been doing every day for the last three months, educating ourselves about Robonaut."

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