I Knew 'Em When …

Taking Up Spacewelcomes guest blogger David Hitt, who, like me, writes feature articles forthe For Studentssection on NASA.gov.

One of the cool things about working and writing for NASA isthat you get the chance to meet and talk to astronauts. It adds something to watching a shuttle launch when I’ve hadthe opportunity to meet some of the people on board. It makes it a little morepersonal, a little more real.

And it’s always very cool to me when a shuttle mission fliescarrying an astronaut that I met “back when.”

The STS-133 crew

The crew of STS-133,for example, includes three astronauts that I’ve had the chance to meet. First,there’s Alvin Drew.When I met Drew, he had just returned from the fairly high-profile STS-118mission that flew the first education mission specialist astronaut, and hadbeen named by People magazine as one of the nation’s hottest bachelors.

Eric Boe and Tim Kopra, onthe other hand, I met fairly early in their careers. Both of them had not yetflown in space the first time I saw them. I met each when they piloted planesto bring other astronauts to Marshall Space Flight Center to talk about recentmissions.

Since then, Kopra has gone on to spend two months in spaceas a crew member on the International Space Station, and Boe was part of aspace shuttle mission that added a bathroom, kitchenette, two bedrooms and gymequipment to the space station.

And the “fourth” member of the crew I met “back when” — Robonaut 2.

Robonaut 2 using a hand-held electronic device

Except he wasn’t Robonaut 2 when I met him; he was stilljust Robonaut. I saw an early version, still in development in a lab in theback of Johnson Space Center’s Building 9, best known as the home of spacecraftmock-ups used in astronaut training. But the coolest thing — I got to lookthrough his eyes. Robonaut’s head features two cameras, that let a remoteoperator see what’s in front of Robonaut via a 3-D headset. And I got to put onthe headset, and see what Robonaut saw. Very cool. And now he’s about to flyinto space for the first time. Even cooler.

Cooler still, thanks to Robonaut 2’s Twitter account, @AstroRobonaut, you’ll be able todo the social networking equivalent of what I did — see spaceflight throughRobonaut’s eyes. Look how far he’s come.

I’m excited about seeing what Boe, Drew and Kopra (and theircrewmates) will do on the STS-133 mission. But I have to admit that,personally, I’m even more excited about following Robonaut 2’s adventures inspace. I’m enough of a science-fiction geek that I find the idea of real-liferobots working on a real-life space station somewhat futuristic and more than alittle cool. Granted, Robonaut 2 won’t be the first robot on the space station.There are the robot arms and Dextre,the “robot hand,” mounted on the outside of the station. And there are thefree-floating bowling-ball-sized SPHERES(Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) thatcan fly through the space station — and which can run programs written bycollege and highschool students on Earth!

But Robonaut 2 is a little different. R2 is a little closerto the science-fiction ideal of the “android” member of a spacecraft’s crew, alittle slice of “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” brought to life. I had theopportunity to write a feature for students about Robonaut 2 recently, and thepotential R2 presents down the road is pretty incredible — humanoid robotsperforming spacewalks to repair the space station, or even exploring thesurface of other worlds. As the old saying goes, tomorrow’s science fiction istomorrow’s science fact!