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Published: Sunday, 11/7/2010

Space marvel

It's not C3PO, the android from Star War that spoke more than 6 million languages. In fact, it can't talk at all. But Robonaut 2 is still a marvel.

The robot nicknamed R2 - no relation to Star Wars' R2D2 - is set to take off with six human space travelers on the shuttle Discovery when it makes its final journey to the International Space Station this month. It's just half a robot right now - head, torso, arms, and hands - but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and co-developer General Motors hope to provide R2 with legs by 2012.

Meanwhile, space station scientists will begin next month to test how well R2 functions in a weightless environment. If all goes well, an ambulatory R2 will perform cleaning chores inside the station and help spacewalking astronauts with outside tasks.

R2 is part of Project M, a low-budget NASA effort to send a humanoid robot to the moon. The project aims to demonstrate the possibilities of unmanned space exploration and to inspire a generation of American scientists and engineers.

Let's hope Congress has the vision to be excited as well. The New York Times reports there isn't money to finish the project, which would cost less than one-half of 1 percent of what it would take to send a human back to the moon. Without funding, Project M's goal of having a robonaut on the lunar surface by 2012 will fail.

With its brains in its belly and its depth perception where its mouth ought to be, R2 never will be mistaken for Data, the sentient android of Star Trek fame. But this accumulation of electrical sensors and mechanical muscles is a cost-effective and evolutionary first step.

It could lead one day to humanlike robots helping space travelers with mundane as well as dangerous tasks. It even could blaze trails to distant planets for astronauts to follow.

A NASA official quipped that R2's launch will be a "giant leap forward for tinmankind." As politicians mull NASA's mission and priorities, that leap merits continued financial aid.

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