Video: Behind the making of ‘R2’

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updated 3/4/2011 3:59:31 PM ET 2011-03-04T20:59:31

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:

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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