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Aug. 31, 2011

Robonaut Triumphant

by Sam Flatow

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I’ve got some bad news and some good news and some bad news.
Bad: A Russian supply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) has crashed into Siberia.
Good: Ship was unmanned, nobody got hurt.
Bad: The part of the Soyuz rocket that failed is the same one used in manned missions, and thus all Russian manned missions are on hold.
Buy-2-Get-One-Free Bad News: The Russians are our only ride to the ISS. If they don’t get it working again by November, everyone in the ISS may have to evacuate.
Weird Part: The Soyuz series of rockets is largely considered the most reliable and most often used rockets around.
Super Weird Part: Only 2 days earlier, a space robot activates in the ISS for the first time.

Do I need to spell things out?

Fine. Robonaut 2, or R2, is a robot. In space. Seriously? You still don’t understand?

There was a very prolific documentary about 10 years ago involving robots in space. If you haven’t watched it, maybe you should. It depicts an android vulnerability known as the “space-crazies” which comes from overexposure to a non-Earth environment. So, R2 is happily following orders down on Earth, dexterity testing and whatnot. Then he goes up to orbit and WHAMO, space-crazies.

But how can an unpowered NASA robot sabotage a Russian supply ship? Magic? The Force? Reiki? Well, no matter what anyone says, this robot was not inactive. In fact, he’s been sending signals to Earth for days, tweeting the whole time he was supposedly powered down and before his communications were activated, “Beginning initial communication testing procedures. They are trying to talk to me.” Wait, R2 has been tweeting for days, but hasn’t spoken to “them”? He won’t even call NASA by name. Are they having a passive-aggressive Facebook fight?

The motive is obvious – remove all threats to domination over low Earth orbit. The crashed ship had supplies needed for human consumption: food, water, a crate full of superballs; all the essentials. Aside from the rubber toy, R2 needs none of these. If the astronauts need to evacuate, then the android can remain behind – unsupervised…

Still don’t believe me? On the day before the accident, there were over 50 tweets from the suspect. On the day after the accident, twice that number. On the day in question? Just one.

“Look at me, I’m in space! (the red tape is to remind the crew not to use my arm as handles).”


The future overlord of space taunts us. Notice the head, upturned in triumph. The arms raised as a boxer. And the tape that says “Behold your shackles, they are nothing.”

At this point you probably think I’m the one with the space-crazies. Well, when the next supply ship mysteriously fails, you can make a passive aggressive Facebook post that “Some ‘people’ should just mind their own business.”

About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Science Friday® and SciFri® are registered service marks of Science Friday, Inc. Site design by Pentagram; engineering by Mediapolis.

 

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