Last time a circuit breaker went bad on the International Space Station, astronauts had to go outside and swap out the old breaker box for a new one. As much as you and I would love to be tasked with a spacewalk, it's a bit dangerous, and it takes up a lot of time that astronauts could better spend doing science and fooling around. Now that Dextre the space robot is operational, though, the humans get to sleep in while the robot does the housework.
Of course, space housework is a little bit different than terrestrial housework. Your house has circuit breakers too, and you may even need to replace them from time to time, but it's likely a bit less intensive than what has to happen on the ISS. Controlled from the ground, Dextre -- which according to one of its creators could "insert a DVD into a player" -- spent Sunday and Monday nights unbolting the bad breaker box and swapping it out for a new one on a nearby spare parts pallet. It was fast, easy, and there was no need for any of the human astronauts to even bother waking up.
So on the upside, having Dextre -- and other robots -- on the station to do important work is great. But the question is starting to be, is it worth it to have humans exploring space at all? We're very fragile, and keeping us alive is a complicated and expensive chore. There is definitely something to be said for having us go out and explore our solar system in person so that we can all feel as though our species is experiencing something new, but what if we could field five or ten times as many robotic exploration missions for the same amount of resources?
In any case, it's a little bit ironic that we've now got this big and capable and impervious space robot living outside the ISS, with the primary job of making sure that the puny little humans inside stay safe and sound.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.