CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The 220-mile-high unveiling of R2, the first humanoid robot in space, is being moved up at the urging of the president of the United States.
Astronaut Catherine Coleman said Friday that she and the 11 other humans aboard the shuttle-station complex want to get R2 out of its packing material as soon as possible.
"In fact, we're all pretty sure that we hear scratching from the inside there," she said during a crew news conference.
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Robonaut 2, better known as R2, flew to the International Space Station aboard Discovery and will stay behind when the shuttle leaves Monday. In a phone call to the two crews Thursday, President Barack Obama teased the astronauts for waiting to unpack the robot, urging them to "let him stretch his legs pretty soon."
R2 seemed to like the idea. "I think he gave them some great advice about me," the robot said in a Twitter update posted Friday by a human colleague.
NASA managers initially wanted to wait a couple of months before getting R2 out. But now Discovery is spending two extra days at the orbiting outpost so its crew can help unpack a new storage unit.
Coleman said she's not sure if they will be able to unwrap R2 before Discovery leaves.
"We don't want to rush things," cautioned Rob Ambrose, chief of Johnson Space Center's automation, robotics and simulation division in Houston. "The robot's really, really patient. It's just us humans who are anxious."
Project manager Ron Diftler noted that Robonaut hasn't seen the outside world for quite a while. It was boxed up for six months aboard Discovery, awaiting liftoff. The flight was delayed four months.
Diftler isn't surprised by "the fervor" surrounding R2.
"Humanoid robots are something that a lot of people can identify with, and having the first humanoid robot in space, especially when so many people have seen things like this in science fiction, it's getting a lot of people's excitement up," Diftler told The Associated Press on Friday. "We're excited about it, too."
Regardless of when the packing foam comes off, R2 won't be tested until May. That's when flight controllers will send up the operating software.
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Coleman, both a scientist and engineer, said she can't wait to test Robonaut during the remainder of her space station stay. As robots travel into space, it's important to learn how they operate in weightlessness, she said. Better to learn those lessons inside the space station, before a robot ventures out on a spacewalk or roams other planets, she added.
It will take both humans and robots "to get us further out into the universe, and Robonaut is a good first step," Coleman said.
R2 — built from the waist up — will undergo a series of tests before tackling simple space station chores at its permanent home. It will get a pair of legs and other upgrades next year.
This is Discovery's final voyage. It's being retired once it returns to Earth on Wednesday, 13 days after blasting off, and will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution for display.
Only two shuttle missions remain before the fleet is retired this summer.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will announce the final resting places for the two other space shuttles on April 12, the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle flight. More than 20 museums and educational institutions across the country, including the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, are vying for display rights.
Enterprise, a test vehicle that never made it to space, is also up for dibs. Right now Enterprise is at the Smithsonian, but Discovery will take its place.
As for Discovery — NASA's oldest and most traveled shuttle — commander Steven Lindsey said he and his crew have been too busy to focus on the historic aspect. But every so often, he reflects on the fact that Discovery will never fly again.
"What a great vehicle it's been, 39 missions, nearly one year on orbit," Lindsey said. "It's just really inspiring to me and kind of bittersweet and quite frankly sad, knowing that when we land, that will be it for this vehicle."
More about Robonaut and Discovery:
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- Obama checks up on astronauts and their robot
- More space shots for shuttle fans
- Where will the shuttles go? We'll know April 12
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