Thank you very much, Mr. Robonauto…

Humans aren’t the only Earthlings who have left our rocky home world, although we are probably the only ones who have done it willingly. Five nations besides the U.S. have launched non-human organisms into space: Russia/USSR, France, China, Japan, and Iran. You can find a comprehensive history lesson pertaining to animals in space here on NASA’s website, but I’ll just give you a quick overview.

The U.S. was the first nation to send animals into space when it launched fruit flies aboard a V2 rocket on February 20, 1947. The U.S. continued its animal astronaut program by launching the first monkey (a Rhesus monkey named Albert II) and the first mouse into space in 1949 and 1950, respectively. In January 1951, the Soviet Union launched a flight carrying the dogs Tsygan and Dezik into space, but not into orbit. Both space dogs survived the flight, although one would die on a subsequent flight. On November 3, 1957, the second-ever orbiting spacecraft carried the first animal into orbit, the dog Laika, launched aboard the Soviet Sputnik 2 spacecraft (nicknamed ‘Muttnik’ in the West). Laika died during the flight, as was intended because the technology to return from orbit had not yet been developed. At least 10 other dogs were launched into orbit and numerous others on sub-orbital flights before the historic date of April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. In many cases, animals like dogs or chimps achieved major milestones in space flight before humans did.

To date, the list of animals that have traveled to space includes squirrel monkeys, rhesus monkeys, chimpanzees, guinea pigs, frogs, rats, cats, parasitic wasps, flour beetles, tortoises, wine flies, meal worms, nematodes, fish, spiders, newts, chicken embryos, turtles, brine shrimp, desert beetles, quail eggs, crickets, snails, carp, medaka, oyster toadfish, sea urchins, swordtail fish, gypsy moth eggs, stick insect eggs, silkworms, carpenter bees, harvester ants, Japanes killifish, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, moth larvae, South African flat rock scorpions, seed-harvester ants, tardigrades, and painted lady and monarch butterfly larvae. Oh right, and humans.

Apparently Robonaut 2 does Shakespeare in his spare time… Credit: NASA/JSC

But now, NASA is looking into sending another form of life into space, an android. And before any arguments start up about machines not being living beings, blah blah blah, I direct you to this Sci-Fi/equal rights gem. In any case, NASA’s newest spacefarer actually missed his 2010 flight window. The second-generation dexterous humanoid robot (Robonaut 2) was built and designed at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. As JSC explains on their website, “Our challenge is to build machines that can help humans work and explore in space. Working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people, the robonauts will expand our ability for construction and discovery.” Although Robonaut 2 or R2, like its predecessor Robonaut 1, is capable of handling a wide range of extravehicular activity (EVA) tools and interfaces, R2 is  up to four times faster, more compact, more dexterous, and includes a deeper and wider range of sensing than R1. Advanced technology allows R2 enough dexterity to use the same tools that astronauts currently use and its humanoid design means that Robonaut 2 can take over simple, repetitive, or especially dangerous tasks on places such as the International Space Station.

While it’s awesome that robotics is making such amazing advancements, I for one, am hoping that robonauts will become companions for astronauts and not replacements. Although apparently the New Jersey State Police might need all the help they can get. This article from concerns ongoing attempts to solve  a 35-year-old mystery.  A supply of rock samples from the Apollo missions to the Moon were supposed to go on public display starting in 1976, when an astronaut presented the Governor’s Office with the goodwill tokens from Apollo 17, the last manned lunar landing. But last year, researchers, curators and former Governor Brendan Byrne admitted to a New Jersey newspaper that they had no idea where the gift went. Now, state police confirm they are looking for leads on the rocks, whose estimated black-market value is $5 million.

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