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NASA Wants Humanoid Robots on Future NASA Missions

To boldly go where humans can't... or just don't want to.

By Cassidy Ward

Advanced humanoid robots have been a mainstay of science fiction for decades, playing both the faithful sidekick and the murderous villain. The 2022 science fiction horror film M3GAN takes a middle road with a pintsized bestie who would kill for the people she loves.

We love the idea of creating advanced robots to do the jobs we’re incapable of. In M3GAN that job is connecting with a grieving niece. In the real world, that job might be going to space on humanity’s behalf.

Humanoid Robotic Astronauts Might Be the Future of Space Exploration

We often think of NASA only as a space administration, and it is, but it is also one of the leading names in robotics. From a certain point of view, every space probe from Voyager to the Parker Solar Probe is a robot. The rovers and helicopters hopping around the Red Planet certainly are. And as we continue to explore the solar system, our robotic comrades will continue to chart the course long before we follow in their metal footsteps.

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NASA’s Human-Robotic Systems (HRS) project was focused on the development and testing of robots for use in space, and NASA has worked with commercial partners like General Electric in the past to develop humanoid robots. The resulting machine, Robonaut 2, has been working on the International Space Station since 2011, alongside the human crew.

While Robonaut is already in action, NASA is working to fill out its robotic roster. The in-house Valkyrie system is one path toward the next generation of humanoid space travelling robots, but NASA has a lot of irons in the fire. Apptronik, a robotics company based in Houston, Texas (the home of the Johnson Space Center) partnered with NASA through the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to help develop its humanoid Apollo astronaut.

Apptronik Nasa Featured Image

The robot was recently unveiled and, while it is designed primarily for work here on Earth, NASA is interested in modifying the technology for use off world. Like Robonaut, a modified Apollo robot could work alongside astronauts or serve as a remote avatar for an Earth-based operator.

“By applying NASA’s expertise in human-safe mobile robots to commercial projects, together we are able to spur innovation in this important field. We are proud to see our efforts result in robotics technology that will benefit the American economy and assist humans in working safely and productively here on Earth and potentially in space exploration as well,” said Shaun Azimi, lead of the dexterous robotics team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a statement.

The vision is to deploy robots to the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere and make them available to operators here on Earth. Moreover, they could feasibly be operated by human crewmembers also on the Moon or Mars, allowing astronauts to operate in dangerous environments without direct risk to themselves. Alternatively, astronauts could put the robots to work on menial tasks that are just too boring for spacefaring explorers to bother with.

Best of all, if the robots ever do turn homicidal, they’ll be hundreds of thousands or millions of miles away! Although, ceding the Red Planet to a race of evil robots is less than ideal.

M3GAN, everyone’s favorite murderous machine, is available from Universal Pictures.