Telepresence, Androids, and Space Exploration

13 06 2012

Our culture is replete with examples of androids and humanoid robots in space.  From David in Ridley Scott’s brand-new film, Prometheus, to the iconic C-3PO in George Lucas’s Star Wars, androids and humanoid robots are often portrayed as our trusted servants and protectors, capable of tasks we ourselves cannot or will not perform. 

Further, the related idea of a person using a surrogate, technological body to survive harsh environments is nearly as old, most recently exemplified by the title character’s lab-grown hybrid body in James Cameron’s recent film Avatar.

These notions are sensible ones for three primary reasons:

  1. Space travel and planetary exploration of any significant distance or duration presents a harsh environment from multiple fronts – psychological, physiological, temporal. 
  2. Maintaining a human form-factor means that these androids will be able to use the same equipment and vehicles as has been designed to accommodate the rest of the crew, a clearly efficient attribute. 
  3. It has been shown that human beings interact more comfortably in may cases with anthropomorphized machines – easing crew comfort.

Well, it appears that reality is finally catching up to these sci-fi archtypes (or, arguably, proving that by defining our expectations science-fiction often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Roscosmos’s SAR-400

Russian telepresence android SAR-400 at a workstation. (Credit: RSK)

As detailed in a story from The Voice of Russia here, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has long been developing the SAR-400, a telepresence robot they term an “android.”  (Note: The definition of what qualifies as an android is still a little loose.)  SAR-400 is designed to act as an astronaut surrogate whenever possible, particularly during spacewalks, to reduce safety risks to the humans aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 

While no plans to send a SAR-400 to space have been announced, this project is extremely similar to a beleagured NASA project of parallel design and scope that is already aboard the ISS.

NASA’s Robonaut-2

Robotics Industry Association President Jeff Burnstein shakes hands with GM-NASA telepresence android “Robonaut 2.” (Credit: RIA)

The NASA Robonaut project, with a lengthy history dating back to conceptual work performed in 1997, is a telepresence robot sharing a nearly identical design with the SAR-400 that is intended to perform work in space and on planetary exploration missions.  (On an interesting side note, during the early 2000s Robonaut’s cosmetic “head” bore an uncanny resemblance to the highly-recognizeable Jango/Boba Fett costume helmet of Star Wars fame.) 

This culminated in 2011 with the launch of a test Robonaut-2 (R2) to the International Space Station.  While the robot has been configured to integrate with the station systems, the robot has seen little real use due heat-dissipation and other technical difficulties.  However, limited tests are proving favorable and increasing the likelihood that that future semi-autonomous telepresence robots will be considered part of the crew.

Robonaut project manager Roin Diftler is quoted as saying that their final objective is “…relieving the crew of every dull task and, in time, giving the crew more time for science and exploration.”

Implications for human space exploration

In a very direct way, this technology reopens the classic debate about whether or not the future of space exploration involves astronaut human beings at all.

Opponents to human-based space exploration cite costs and logistical complications, while proponents note that human beings still exhibit unique learnining, problem-solving, and innovation capabilities necessary for frontier work that are far beyond the ability of modern artificial intelligences. 

Bishop (341-B), a benevolent android and space crewmember from the film “Aliens.” (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Perhaps, instead of replacing humans on the frontier, the future will be a hybrid approach as has been the case so far.  As R2’s program manager implied above, perhaps the ultimate solution is to cater to our strengths – in androids, an unblinking sentinel, able to perform repetitive or tedious tasks without tiring and work in dangerous environments without suffering the effects of stress; in humans – creative problem-solvers and pioneering explorers with the ability to innovate, and perhaps more importantly, to inspire.

In this light I’m strongly reminded of Bishop, the “synthetic person” artificial intelligence from the James Cameron film, Aliens.  A good guy strictly governed by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Bishop is shown to accompany space crews into unknown territory, operate equipment, pilot vehicles, perform analyses, reduce data, and save the day on multiple occasions. 

Might Robonaut-2 and the SAR-400 be the equivalent of a real-life Bishop’s distant ancestors?  Time will tell.  

However, in this character, science fiction has erected a sensible guidepost for what future android integration into space crews for the purpose of enabling human space exploration would look like.

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Spaceflight simulators, space games, and STEM

17 04 2012

Cockpit view from a simulated spacecraft in freeware spaceflight sim, "Orbiter."

For those who aren’t familiar, “STEM” is a particularly hot-button acronym in the professional space education community these days that stands for, “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”

These are the college degrees and professions that ultimately keep the economy, innovation, and space exploration in particular going.

These are also the fields that have been suffering from declining numbers during the last couple of decades.  (Consequently, projects with heavy STEM education components are often bumped to the top of the funding pile…)

In response, there appears to be a waxing tide of development of vaguely (or overtly) educational space-centered video games.  This seems to be a new push during the past couple of years, distinct from the open-source processing endeavors such as SETI@home and MilkyWay@home.

In this light, I’d like to take a moment to review and highlight a few of many excellent spaceflight software options out there, historical and contemporary, that are worth checking out for yourself (and some of which may even need your help!)

Starlight: Inception

Based solely on personal bias, I must begin with the lost genre of the spaceflight simulator. Or, more specifically, the spaceflight combat simulator.

Much like a conventional flight simulator, spaceflight simulators provide exactly what they sound like they do: the in-cockpit experience of flying a spacecraft or space “fighter.”

While many of these as games are related to sci-fi franchises, (e.g., X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, Wing Commander,) and contain much scientifically-apocryphal content, such as sounds in space or apparent aerodynamic/non-Newtonian movements in a vacuum, I don’t think the impact of these games can be overstated.  I myself was in part inspired to a career in aerospace by games like these as a kid.

(More accurate but less-adrenaline-pumped simulators without a “game” component include Kerbal Space Program, Orbiter and Microsoft Space Simulator.)

Credit: Escape Hatch Entertainment LLC

So, this brings me to the present day.  It’s been many years since the last spaceflight combat simulator was released, (e.g., Descent: Freespace, Tachyon,) and in an attempt to restart the genre, Escape Hatch Entertainment LLC has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their proposed game, Starlight: Inception.

Evoking design elements of classic Star Wars, Wing Commander, and even some of James Cameron’s “Aliens,” the game looks to hit all the right notes to inspire a new generation of impressionable gameplayers toward a future amongst the stars.

Frankly, I feel like having games like this out there contributing to the social fabric is critical.  Plus, being a privately-funded campaign, the project team is very receptive to the suggestion of its backers – the more people call for enhanced realism and technical accuracy, the more will be incorporated!

Check them out and offer your support if you feel so inclined – the game won’t be “launched” unless they reach their fundraising goals.  Future generations of inspired spacefarers (or other STEM professionals) may thank you!

NetworKing

From the fantastic to the strategic, I’d like to mention a free game developed by the technology office at NASA Ames Research Center called, “NetworKing.”

The objective of this educational Real-Time-Strategy game is very grounded: to build and maintain three separate space communications networks, (Near, Space, and Deep-Space,) and evolve them to the point of being unified into a single space communications network.

The equivalent of experience points are earned as NASA missions are successfully enabled by the network, and money for upgrades is earned as time on the network is leased to commercial satellites.

In all, an innovative way to communicate what it takes to run a communications network in space and definitely worth checking out.  -Playable now online or via free download.

Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond

On another side of the spectrum is the concept of the MMO, or Massively-Multiplayer Online game.

NASA recently experimented with the MMO concept as a means of education outreach and STEM inspiration with a project called Moonbase Alpha.

Evolving the success of Alpha a little further, NASA and Project Whitecard Inc. initiated another ultimately-successful Kickstarter campaign that kicked off the creation of a full-fledged, NASA-sanctioned MMO entitled, “Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond

Screenshot from NASA MMO Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. (Credit: Project Whitecard)

The game aims to incorporate real locations, hardware, and mission profiles, leveraging the full support of NASA to create a tool to engage thousands of people simultaneously in realistic space exploration role-playing.

A beta-test version is expected this year, with the game to be released in 2013.

-So, in short, there’s lots of activity on the space-meets-video-games front, and much of it is being self-directed with the support of NASA itself.  Check it out and/or show your support!  (Even if only to point someone else in their direction.)

The astronauts of tomorrow will likely get their first space exploration thrills on games like these.  Let’s help make sure they have the opportunity.





A shotgun blast of suborbital science

15 03 2012

I’m pleased to report that I recently had the fortune to represent my spaceflight consulting firm Astrowright as a sponsor of, as well as present research at, the Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference this past February 26-29 in Palo Alto, CA.  

Ashley presenting our voluntary "Flight Readiness" certification service at NSRC 2012!

Specifically, after nearly a year of research and client-training-data-mining together with my friend/ballet-dancer/anthropologist/excercise-scientist/astronaut-trainer/partner-in-crime Ashley Boron, our presentations centered this year on our frontier fitness services – Astrowright’s custom preflight fitness training program for space passengers-to-be and a “flight readiness” benchmark testing and certification program intended to help aspiring spaceflight pros demonstrate that they’ve got the Right Stuff

The three-day event was intense – with a flurry of presentations covering everything from spacecraft development and mental stress training to planetary science and research payload design.  If that weren’t enough, beyond the research presented at the conference, (for the interested, the program is available here,) the meeting was an explosion of exciting commercial spaceflight activity, from keynote speaker Neil Armstrong’s comparison of early X-15 flights to the current activity in civilian spacecraft testing to XCOR’s giveaway of a trip to space!

Unfortunately, I had only a single day to fly out there and fly back – one of the pitfalls of too many irons in the fire – but the experience in even that short amount of time, like the last one, was thrilling.  The conference smashed both attendance and support records, as well – Further evidence that the suborbital science community is nothing shy of a force of nature blasting the doors off the hinges of civilian spaceflight.

Like many of us have been championing for a while now, a paradigm shift truly feels in-progress.  Many networking and potential research and business opportunities arose as a result of NSRC 2012… and I can’t wait to tell everyone about them at NSRC 2013!

For more details on the conference and/or our presentations, visit the Astrowright company blog here.

Semper exploro!





NASTAR: Follow-up videos

1 11 2011

View of the Phoenix centrifuge simulator interior from the observation lounge.

For those interested in something a little more full-motion, I submit to you a quick post today pointing toward what civilian commercial scientist-astronaut training, (i.e., non-NASA) looks like.

Courtesy of Keith Cowing (of nasawatch.com, spaceref.com, and a phalanx of other space industry sites fame,) the video of our high-g centrifuge training at the NASTAR Center last May was recorded and uploaded as a live webcast (I’m second in the video).

NOTE: Because the video was recorded live, all commentary, hoots, hollars, and laughter is therefore uncensored and should be received in that light.

Click here for the archived webcast. (Be advised – the video is long!)

Each participant in the video takes three “flights” on a SpaceShipOne-style craft simulator built into a state-of-the-art centrifuge.  The first of these simulations is performed at 50% power, and the second two are at 100%, enabling trainees to experience exactly what the pilots of SpaceShipOne experienced on their way to space.

Video of the exterior of the simulator during a “run” may also be found here, while a view of the display inside the simulator during a run may be seen here.

It was a blast!  (I blogged the experience starting here.)  So, for the curious, enjoy the video, and many thanks to Keith for archiving this for posterity!





What happened to Zero-G Football?

6 10 2011

Even team sports are possible on larger "zero-g" aircraft. (Credit: Space Adventures)

Back in late 2005, a company called IPX Entertainment, (headed by Haughton-Mars Project veteran Rocky Persaud,) began promoting microgravity sports.

With an interview with Leonard David, another on Ajax Developers Journal, and a piece written by Rocky himself on The Space Review, he championed the promise of repeat customers for viewing and participating in zero-g sports as a way to break open the NewSpace market to the masses.

The plan included a reality show, “Space Champions,” which would chronicle the development of a proprietary sport, first called “Parabolic Football,” or “Paraball,” and then intriguingly changed to, “Zero Gravity Football.”  (Was “Paraball” too confusing a term?)

Rendering of a Virgin Galactic suborbital space passenger. (Credit: Zero G)

A Zero Gravity Sports League was also on the books, as were flagship microgravity Zero Gravity Football teams in the U.S. and Canada.

This appeared to capitalize on the rush of attention given to Virgin Galactic SpaceShipOne’s  clinching of the Ansari X Prize, and by all accounts, the situation as of this late 2006 interview was looking up.

So, what happened?

I actually don’t have a direct answer.  The company no longer exists, and the corporate charter has been revoked.  I suspect the fact that the commercial suborbital space market didn’t mature as quickly as many hoped played a role.  Also, the failure of the Rocket Racing League to take off (yet), which is also a “space sport” intended to rally public interest in private space, may have made investors and advertisers hesitant to invest in a “zero-g sport.”

Regardless, perhaps with SpaceShipTwo about ready to fly and XCor’s Lynx right behind, the market may be more fertile for the advent of microgravity sports?





Blues in Space Predicted!

31 08 2011

There are a number of other space and spaceflight stories deserving of my attention, but I had to fast-track this one out.  Why the rush?  Frankly, I’m thrilled, for my previous prediction of blues in space has been proven true!

Astronaut Ron Garan and his blues guitar. (Credit: NASA)

In a fun “home video” piece, NASA Astronaut Ron Garan goes “missing,” and a search is made of the extensive International Space Station to find him.

Where is he holed up and why?  Well, upon hearing that the crew’s return home has been delayed due to the recent problems with Russia’s rocket launches, @Astro_Ron (as he is known on Twitter) retreated to the Soyuz spacecraft currently docked to the station, donned his shades, and began strumming up “The Space Station Blues,” an original(!).

In his own words:

“I wanted to do something light-hearted to let everyone know that we are all in this together, so I enlisted Mike Fossum to help me make a video poking a little fun at the situation.”

As far as I’m concerned, the advent of original blues on the space frontier marks this as a red letter day for space culture!  Way to go, Ron!

Now that I think of it, perhaps “The Space Station Blues” deserves a better treatment?  (Hmm…  I wonder if I could get the band back together for that one…)

So, as a 21st-Century Blues Brother in Space might say:

“It’s 190 miles to Earth, we’ve got a full crew, half a pack of supplies, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.  Hit it.”





Space Suit of the Week

31 05 2011

A quick note today on a very excellent blog series called Space Suit of the Week.  Its weekly contributions feature, unsurprisingly, space suits as they appear in art, culture and history.

While entries vary in style from edgy or morbid to fascinating and  fun, the posts carry readers on a romp through some of the most identifiable imagery in our collective psyche.  It’s quite awesome.

The series is actually a sub-part of the The Fox is Black blog, which is billed as an “art and design website that seeks to discover and share the most interesting, beautiful and inspiring parts of contemporary life.”  I’d say that space exploration definitely fits the bill. 

Check it out if you get a chance.








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