Future Space: Shoulder to shoulder with robots
It sits, fists clenched and arms folded to the chest. Robonaut 2 is ready for action on the space station.
Humans have an innate need to explore. It cannot simply be left to robots
The first humanoid robot to go into orbit was carried up to the outpost in February on shuttle Discovery.
I wrote about this machine just prior to launch. It's now been unpacked from its flightbox, but won't be switched on for another month.
The station's astronauts have a list of tasks to work through and booting up their new "housemate" is some way down the schedule.
R2, as it's known for short, is a pioneer for its kind. Fifty years on from Gagarin's historic first for humans, the humanoid machines are following.
The robot's first operations will be very simple: a series of "games" on a board to demonstrate the performance seen on the ground can be replicated in the microgravity conditions experienced on the station.
JD Yamokoski is Robonaut Controls Lead from a company called Oceaneering Space Systems, which is working on the Nasa project. He told me:
"Initially, we will be doing system check-out - minor things to earn our stripes. At first, these will be some free-motion tasks to make sure we don't interact with any objects on station we shouldn't. Then we'll move on to the taskboard. It's got a variety of switches, valves, and knobs, soft materials - the types of things you'd find all over station. We're going to interact with that taskboard and prove we can work with the same things humans work with. And then, over time, we have a series of upgrades we'd like to fly - everything from a battery so we can go wireless to a new mobility platform so Robonaut can move around station as opposed to sitting in one spot.
"As to the future, R2 will do anything that helps the crew out - all the dull and dirty jobs. For instance, on Saturday mornings the crew spend their time wiping down handrails on station. There are huge numbers of these rails. So Robonaut could help with the cleaning. We have full 3D models of the inside of the station and there are a number of ways we could program Robonaut to move around."
So, stage by stage, R2 is set to move on to bigger and better things. Its human-like hands and arms should allow R2 to pick up and work with the same tools the station crew use; and with the correct locomotive attachments, the robot will eventually start clambering around the station just like the astronauts.
A double act: Humanoid robots will partner humans as we push out across the Solar System
It is easy enough to see where this is going, I think. Humanoid robots will increasingly work side-by-side with humans.
They will even stand in for astronauts during spacewalks or for those tasks in space thought too difficult or too dangerous for humans to accomplish.
And I wouldn't mind betting that at some point this century, they will actually lead their creators across the Solar System.
We often forget that Gagarin, Shepard and their ilk were preceded into Earth orbit by dogs and chimps.
Space: Sapientia, Populus, Audacia, Cultura, Exploratio
In the far more demanding quest to reach the asteroids, the planets and their moons, robotic humanoid sentinels could be playing very significant roles.
We wouldn't risk sending humans first to the volcanic fields of Io or to the icy lakes of Titan. The robots would lead the advance.
Not always humanoid forms, of course. But just as on station, which is made for humans, if the Mars camp is designed to be occupied by people then we may want to send humanoid robots to set up that camp and test it before the astronauts' arrival. JD again:
"The amount of computing power we have in R2 now is a testament to how far processors have come. The robot has got 30-40 computers inside it. As computers continue to miniaturise and become more powerful in that smaller package, what we can do with the robot will increase.
"Just as an example. You may have seen the IBM computer Watson that recently competed on the US TV quiz show Jeopardy. It's a large computer and its feat is that it can understand natural language. There's no doubt that in 50 years from now, the computational power that machine can harness will be shrunk to the size we can fit in something like Robonaut."
There will be some, of course, who will question whether humans even need to follow if the robots reach this expected level of sophistication.
The machines' requirements are fewer in terms of the resources needed to sustain them - they don't want for air, food, water, and the very narrow range of warm temperatures demanded by humans.
And, ultimately, the machines are expendable. They don't have to be returned - a necessity in the case of humans which only adds to the complexity and cost of space missions.
But robots cannot simply replace humans in future exploration. It's something I've been discussing of late with the Esa astronaut Gerhard Thiele.
He makes a passionate case for the human element in space exploration. Our need to reach out into the unknown is innate, and he uses a nice Latin mnemonic for SPACE which embodies this compulsion: Sapientia, Populus, Audacia, Cultura, Exploratio:
"We often ask ourselves: why do humans explore? There is no clear-cut answer to this; there is no mathematical proof. Going into space may be a technical endeavour but ultimately going into space is a cultural thing. And you can see that because we do it all around the globe, whether we're Americans, Europeans, Japanese or Chinese - going into space to explore is something innate to the human being.
"You cannot ask a robot about feelings. Let me use this example. If I go to anywhere on this planet and sit on a beach and watch the beautiful sunset. With my physics education I can explain to others where the colours come from and what those colours tell you about the composition of the atmosphere. Some people may not understand this but if I talk only about the beauty of the sunset, then they understand this. You cannot do this with a robot, because a robot can only provide you with answers that someone has pre-programmed into them earlier somehow.
"I'm not saying we should not send robots; this is not my point. The human ability to sense emotions and take them into account in our actions is unique. Now, there are many areas where emotions are not wanted and could be even a distraction, where robots can do a much better job than we can do."