Few people know that during the entire history of the Space Shuttle program, the pilot and co-pilot have never flown the spaceship.  They sit there, "just in case".  Since the Shuttle has five back-up flight control computers, spending millions of dollars to train two pilots and fly them into space on each mission is a waste.  Experts contend that if an catastrophic failure forced the pilots to switch to manual and attempt to fly the shuttle themselves, whatever damage occurred would make landing the Shuttle impossible anyway.  However, NASA needs political support from the US military, so it allows two military "pilots" to ride along.

      Whatever experiments manned spacecraft may perform in orbit, all necessary actions can be automated.  Including humans requires numerous complex and heavy systems to keep them alive.  Meanwhile, space endurance missions have shown that keeping humans in weightlessness is unhealthful after several months, so this requires a constant turnover of Space Station crews, along with supplies of food and water.  NASA should not abandon manned space flight, but it needs to equip Space Station to function automatically.  The P5 glove, BBC

     There is valid concern that a man with fingers is sometimes needed to repair the unexpected.  However, there is no need for that man to be in space.  Communication links allow a man on earth to control a small "astrobot" in space who sees what it sees via a video image projected into goggles he wears.  The astrobots head turns in sync with the goggles on Earth, and it has "hands" which respond to his hand movements back on Earth. Virtual reality goggles and virtual hands have already been developed for sophisticated computer games, as this article explains: Future in your hand  This allows a human on Earth to move around the Space Station by pushing and pulling the astrobot around in a gravity free environment.  They will have a rechargeable battery pack for independent movement, and maybe even a speaker and microphone so the operator can talk directly to astronauts or other astrobots.  There may be special types, like the repairbot which has a small circular saw and drill. 

     NASA should build astrobots and deploy them to the Space Station so a continual crew presence is unneeded.  They can perform any housekeeping chores that astronauts now perform and work 24 hours a day with no food, water, or oxygen.  Astrobots could easily perform "space walks" and remain outside in space for days at a time.  Spacecraft or satellite repairs can be performed by experts on Earth from a comfortable Florida office, rather than in bulky space suit in orbit with huge gloves.  Obviously, this is much, much safer and will allow spacecraft to undertake numerous satellite repair missions which are deemed too risky or complex for a human.  Astrobots would allow contractors teams on Earth to spend an entire day tearing apart a satellite to determine the problem. 

     As a result, each spacecraft "crew" can consist of hundreds people on Earth who can use the Space Station continually.  Scientists can work their own experiments and expert repairmen can fix whatever breaks, including astronauts.  There is no reason why surgeons on Earth cannot perform emergency surgery with astrobots.  NASA public relations people will discover that astrobots allow anyone to suddenly be on the space station--virtually.  Visiting VIPs and reporters will love a chance to move about in the Space Station, and America will be excited that NASA has something new to show off.  Astronauts could visit with their families--hugging, dancing, and taking a tour.  Since the Space Station astrobots will be available 24 hours a day, NASA could schedule time for up to a thousand young honor students to spend a few minutes on the Space Station each year. 

      Astrobots could also sit in the Shuttle's pilot seats controlled by NASA pilots back in Earth, "just in case".  The value of astrobots is obvious so advocates of manned space flight may resist this idea.  However, the purpose of NASA is to advance science and let practical reality determine the future.  Perhaps Shuttle crews can simply visit the Space Station for a few days to swap out experiments and check on things, but leave the astrobots to mind the store.  If an astrobot is lost in an accident, the Earth bound operator weeps, then turns a switch to activate himself into a spare astrobot inside the Space Station to resume work while another astrobot repairs the broken astrobot.  Astrobots still allow man to go into space, yet leave his body behind.

                                                                            Carlton Meyer  editorG2mil@Gmail.com

2003 www.G2mil.com

Letters

Robonaut

     There is already such a product in development and it is called "Robonaut." Developed by the Johnson Space Center and DARPA. Robonaut is being designed to perform most of the tasks you have prescribed in your article. There are, however, several problems in deploying Robonaut as a pilot. For example an anthropomorphic mechanism with telepresence would have to be a dedicated unit as any ingress or egress from the cockpit to the exterior of the craft would require an extensive redesign of the shuttle and Robonaut. A UAV style ground based remote control system (with a pilot) would be easier than having a Robonaut perform these tasks and even that may be unnecessary. Consider the exemplary record the shuttle's remote system has. The Challenger was destroyed by the much more problematic SRB's and the Columbia by impact damage. Having EVA capable Robonauts egress the same way Astronauts do would be difficult as it would require some kind of inert or cold gas thruster module for interior movement as well as a chemical maneuvering network like MMU's. This would be prohibitive in the form of increased bulk and complexity. 

     The Robonaut is designed to be deployed from the Canadarm to work on "virtually" controlled satellite repair, construction, and other extravehicular tasks. This solves a lot of problems in the realm of possessing an independent power source as well as a maneuvering system. Although I have no doubt that something precisely as you described is possible in the future it is not a near term solution. Robonaut is in the early stages of its development so it is not nearly capable of such abilities. Also Robonaut was designed to perform EVA's exclusively. Perhaps in a couple of decades or more such technology will be mature enough that a descendant of Robonaut could be this versatile, since it does make sense.

                                                                                                   Trig

Ed: Thanks, no need to apply for a patent now. Astrobots could move around by simply using their "arms" to push and pull themselves around, just like humans.  They could be connected to the spacecraft by an umbilical cord, but they may become tangled with other astrobots and things, so maybe just a rechargeable battery pack and the astrobot would have to plug himself in every few hours.  But they would need some kind of thrusting system to work outside the craft, just like humans, except much smaller since life support is not an issue.

Telefactoring

       It is with great interest that I read the Astrobot article in the October 2003 G2mil. My initial thought on the article was that Carlton had not considered in the problem of time delay, but in the context that he is writing this is not a significant factor. Space shuttles and stations such as Mir only orbit at around 100miles.

     The two terms missing from this article were "Waldo" and "Telefactoring".  "Waldo" was a term coined by Robert Heinlein and later adopted by the nuclear industry. Essentially it means a remote controlled arm or other tool. Telefactoring is the name given to remotely controlling Waldos or robots, and there is a implication that via various sensors the operator can move the machine as easily as his own body. This is rather like playing certain types of video game, but your actions have an effect on the real world rather than a synthetic one.

     There is an obvious temptation to use such robots at greater altitudes. Such a robot may be lighter than a man, and will require less (if any) life support, which translates into less fuel needed to reach a given orbit. In many situations the robot can be regarded as expendable, which means that there is no need for to make provisions for the trip back to Earth. However, at greater distances, time delay may become a factor. A Geostationary satellite orbits at 22,300 miles, while the speed of light (or radio waves) is around 186,000 miles per second. This translates as a delay of at least a quarter of a second between an operator on Earth seeing something needs to be done and the robot reacting. Should a robot/operator drop a component or tool the chances of recapturing it as it drifts away will be very low.

     Telefactoring of robots is already used in another hostile environment. Robots are being used for deep sea exploration and repair, and the form of these may give us some idea what Astrobots may look like. An astrobot doesn't really need two legs. Propulsion can be by jets or brachiating with the arms like an ape. Without legs the body is more compact and can go places that a man can't. An additional single grabber or "prehensile tail" may be useful to anchor the robot. Some Deep sea robotic systems have used air jets to synthesise a sense of touch for the operator, and in a space environment lasers can be used to scan a surface to "feel" its texture. Astrobots may look a lot like a smaller version of the pods in "2001".
                                                                                     Phil West