NASA ROBOTS  What are robots?  How are they used in space?  David takes a journey to space with exploration robots. To Purchase NEWTON'S APPLE videos and other science stuff,
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Getting Started

Begin the lesson by asking students to imagine they are robots in Earth's orbit with a simple task to perform: Tie the safety tether of an astronaut to a metal ring in the open cargo bay of the space shuttle. Easy for a high­tech robot, right?

Have students put on blindfolds and tie their shoes. Ask them to try it again, this time wearing the blindfolds and heavy gloves. Repeat the task a third time, but this time tape Popsicle sticks or tongue depressors to the fingers of the gloves.

Ask students the following questions: Why is it so hard to tie your shoes? What are the many different kinds of signals your brain receives from your body to do this seemingly simple task? What would be involved in building a machine to tie your shoes?


Sometime during your life, maybe about 20 years from now, you will see the first images of a human walking on Mars. Long before a human undertakes the dangerous task of going to Mars, however, the planet will be explored by an army of large and small robots.

A robot is an electronically controlled device programmed to conduct tasks that could normally be done by human workers. In hostile environments everywhere, particularly in space, modern explorers are turning to robots to undertake dangerous missions­missions that cannot yet be undertaken by humans. In July 1997, a small robotic rover called Sojourner drove around on the cold surface of Mars, the first of many robots being designed by NASA to explore other planets. On Earth, smart robots are being developed to venture into active volcanoes, dive deep into the oceans, search for land mines left from wars, and help police disarm terrorist bombs.

Much robot development is spurred by NASA. The space agency plans to use robots in three basic ways: on­orbit assembly, science payload tending, and planetary surface exploration. Assembly robots will help build Space Station Alpha during the next few years. The robots will be the eyes and hands of human controllers who will use something called virtual reality telepresence to see what the robot sees.

Science payload robots will help astronauts inside the space station and will run science experiments when people aren't around. Exploration robots will land on and survey distant planets, moons, and asteroids. These robots must be able to "think" for themselves. If a robot comes to a cliff on Mars, for example, it has to stop without a controller back on Earth telling it to do so. Thinking robots are important because it takes many minutes to communicate between Earth and other planets, so human controllers can't respond fast enough to help a robot avoid a dangerous situation.

Earth­bound industries are adapting much of NASA's robotic technology for everything from tiny microsurgery tools to giant steam shovels. While a robot may never actually tie your shoes, the machines are increasingly becoming creatures not just of science fiction, but of the real world.

1. Robots have been used in manufacturing for more than a decade. What products do you use that were made with the help of a robot? How and why was a robot used?

2. Do you think a smart robot could be your friend? How would that be different from having a human friend or even a pet? What responsibilities would you have toward the robot?

3. What activities or problems can you think of that a robot could solve or at least help with?

Student Activity
Try your hand at guiding a robot to do a simple task.


Until robots become true "thinking" machines, able to understand their environment and make decisions about what to do to accomplish their mission, they will depend on controllers to guide them. In this activity you will work with a partner to find out how hard it is to accurately guide a robot through even simple tasks.


  • blindfold
  • notebook
  • shoe box (or some other container that size)
  • baseball or tennis ball
  • 1. Working with a partner, one of you will take on the role of a robot, the other the controller. The person playing the robot should be securely blindfolded and given the ball.

    2. The robot, following verbal instructions from the controller, must move along a prescribed course (down an aisle and around a desk, for example) and then deposit the ball in the container. The robot can't talk during the first attempt and must follow the directions given to it exactly ("turn right" doesn't necessarily mean all parts of the body or 90° right). After the robot has successfully put the ball in the container, the robot and controller should switch roles and try it again.

    3. When you have both completed the task, figure out what the most difficult part in communicating instructions was, then develop a written glossary of commands to make maneuvering easier. Define a specific length for a step (the length of a piece of notebook paper, for example) and instead of saying "turn right" or "turn left," work out specific angles for the size of turns ("turn 20 degrees to the right," for example).

    4. Repeat the mission again using a different route, taking a turn in each role. Did the glossary make things easier for both the robot and the controller? Was there less misunderstanding?

    5. Try it again, but this time draw a map of the route the robot is supposed to take. The controller must sit facing away from the course the robot must follow, but this time the controller will use the robot's eyes (which in a real robot would be a TV camera). The controller must use the map to keep track of the robot's location and is allowed to ask "yes" and "no" questions so the robot can give feedback about its surroundings. The robot must still await the controller's instructions before moving.


    1. What problems might you face if the robot wasn't as smart as you or your partner?

    2. The minimum round-time for a signal between Earth and Mars is 8.8 minutes; the maximum time is 41.9 minutes. How would you change your commands if they took 20 or 30 minutes to reach your robot? What dangers would that delay cause?

    3. What sensory devices could you add to the robot to make controlling it more precise?


    Brian Show Number: 1501


    Books and articles

    Brown, L. (1996)
    Robotix Mars mission activity guide (for grades 3­12).
    Chicago: Carnegie Science Center and Learning Curve Toys
    Educational Division.
    To obtain, call
    (800) 704-8697 or e-mail:

    Haddrill, M. (1997, June)
    The incredible shrinking robot.
    Final Frontier, p. 26.

    Web sites

    Learning Curve Toys
    (Robotix Construction System) fact sheet

    Long Range Science Rover Task
    (NASA robots for planetary exploration)

    NASA Space Telerobotics Program

    Robotics Engineering Consortium
    (NASA­inspired robots at work on Earth)

    Robotics Related Periodicals and Publications

    Updates on NASA's Mars Missions

    Try This:

    Before there were robots, craftsmen built "automated men" using gears, motors, pulleys, and levers. These devices, which range from piano-playing people to bell ringers, are not true robots because they are not programmable. Research the history of automated systems. Do they use feedback?

    Try This:

    Robots have long been associated with outer space. From Voyager 2 to Viking to Sojourner, robot probes have collected an enormous amount of information from areas where "no one has gone before." Where are robots going in the 21st century?

    Try This:

    Craters form on planets and moons when meteors hit. The shape of a crater reveals a lot about the power of the impact. Drop a metal ball bearing into a dishpan filled with flour. Remove the ball with a magnet and measure the width and depth of the crater. Try different-sized balls dropped from different heights. Why are the craters different?

    NEWTON'S APPLE video cassettes and educational materials provide further information about this and other topics. Call 1-800-588-NEWTON.

    Copyright 1997,
    Twin Cities Public Television

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