July 16, 2012 at 8:20 PM ET
It might not be as fun as a console game or as detailed as flight sims, but neither of those lets you learn to control an actual robot astronaut; NASA's Robonaut ROS Simulator does. This open-source program lets you program and operate a virtual Robonaut aboard a virtual International Space Station, assuming you've got the technical chops.
Unfortunately, the bar is rather high for taking the robot out for a spin. They've only tested it in Ubuntu, a popular version of Linux, and you'd be interacting with it primarily through the command line. Robonauts weren't built for use by the man on the street, after all.
But assuming you can download and build the simulator, you'll find a highly detailed Robonaut 2 model and a few environments in which to make it move around. It can't go far, lacking legs, but it can operate the space station control panel, one of the things the robot is actually meant to do.
The creator of the simulator warns that the environments aren't quite as detailed as the real thing, wires and tools everywhere. But that shouldn't stop able hackers from exploring the capabilities of the Robonaut and perhaps even teaching the original engineers a few things. Publication of the robot's OS like this is a great way to solicit improvements and bug reports.
You can find links to the necessary files here at ROS.org, a website and wiki concerning the development of operating systems for robots.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for NBCNews.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.