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Robonaut Has Been Broken for Years, and Now NASA Is Bringing It Home

A mysterious hardware problem has kept the ISS Robonaut out of action since at least 2015, so it's returning to Earth for a fix

9 min read
NASA's Robonaut
Photo: NASA

In February of 2011, NASA launched Robonaut 2 to the International Space Station. It was a huge achievement for the robotics team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston. There had been other robots in space, but Robonaut was the first advanced humanoid to ever go on a mission beyond Earth. On board the ISS, the robot was intended to eventually work side by side with astronauts, performing some of the dull and repetitive tasks that take up a significant amount of time that the humans on the station could instead be spending on science and discovery.

For a while, things went well. The robot was unboxed from its protective foam packaging, and set up in the Destiny laboratory module. It was powered up for the first time in August of 2011, and by 2012 it was flipping practice switches and cleaning practice handrails while being teleoperated from the ground. Once a month or so, astronauts set Robonaut up and it would do research tasks for several hours at a time, working toward making a transition from an experimental project to a useful helper in the caretaking of human spacecraft. Robonaut even got its own Twitter account: “Check me out. I’m in space!

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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