Astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger is a mission specialist. She will fly on the STS-131 space shuttle mission. This mission is set to launch in spring 2010.
On this spaceflight, Dottie's job will be to use a large robotic arm. Sometimes the robotic arm is called the Canadarm. It was made in Canada. The robotic arm is attached to the space shuttle. It is used for many jobs.
The arm can be commanded by several different ways. One way is to use two hand controllers. Each controller will move the arm in a different way. Another way to control the arm is to move the arm one joint at a time. The arm also can be put in automatic mode. This is where the arm has been programmed to move on its own. The commands are sent from the hand controllers or panel switches through the space shuttle's computers, then out to the electronic system in the arm.
Dottie will use the space shuttle's arm to inspect the shuttle's underside. She will use the arm to move around a tool called the Orbiter Boom Sensing System. The Orbiter Boom Sensing System is 50 feet long. It is attached to the end of the robotic arm. A camera and laser are on the end of the boom. These tools will check the space shuttle for any damage that might have happened during launch or in space.
NASA uses two robotic arms in space. On the space shuttle, crew members use the Canadarm. On the International Space Station, astronauts use the Canadarm2. Astronauts on the STS-131 crew will use the Canadarm2 to move equipment from the space shuttle to the space station.
Robotic Arm Training
To learn how to use robotic arms, astronauts go to school. They learn from teachers like Linda Bigonesse. Linda uses computers to teach astronauts how to use the robotic arm. Some of the training is similar to playing a video game.
One tool uses a computer screen. It shows a picture of the shuttle cockpit where the controls for the robotic arm are located. The arm is controlled with many switches that toggle, or move, up and down. To practice flipping the right switches, astronauts use a computer mouse to click the switches in the picture of the cockpit.
Most robotic arm training is done in a place called "the dome." It is called the dome because it is shaped like a giant dome. Its real name is the Shuttle Engineering Simulator.
In the dome is a mock-up of part of the space shuttle cockpit. A mock-up is a full-size model. A computer projects pictures onto the dome. The pictures show what astronauts will see when they look out the space shuttle's windows while in space.
Linda said practicing in the dome is more realistic than practicing on a computer. Several astronauts can work together in the dome at the same time. Having several people in the cockpit is closer to what it will be like when the shuttle is in space. Also, instead of clicking on switches with a computer mouse, the shuttle mock-up has real switches to flip.
Some shuttle arm training takes place in the Shuttle Mission Simulator. The simulator is a life-size model of the whole shuttle cockpit. All the crew members can fit in the simulator and practice the jobs they will do in space.
Robotics in Space
Robotic arms have been used in space for nearly 30 years. The shuttle arm was first flown in 1981 on the space shuttle's second spaceflight. The space station's arm was added in 2001. The robotic hand "Dextre" was added in 2008. In 2009, astronauts added a second station arm as part of a new space station module from Japan.
Robotic arms have made it possible for NASA to do great things. They were used to build the International Space Station. Robotic arms have been used to catch and release satellites.
Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger said even more robots will be needed as NASA goes to the moon and other places in the solar system. Robots on other worlds may be used to pick up and study soil and rocks. They also may help with building places for people to live.
Dottie is an educator astronaut. Before becoming an astronaut, she was a school teacher. She hopes students will see how important robotics will be to the future. Robots will be important for exploring space. They will also be important for things on Earth.
"You see it being used in auto manufacturing and in medicine, so I think we'll continue to see robotics used more and more in society," Dottie said. "Students need to be aware of how robotics can be used for different things."
Robotics can be a fun way to learn science and math. "This is important to study math and science because you may be working with these things, and you may be designing these things," Dottie said. "You will probably be influenced by robots at some time in your life."
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Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services