Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
On July 5, 1997, a small robot emerged from its lander like an insect from an egg, crawling out onto the rocky surface of Mars. About the size of a child’s wagon, NASA’s Sojourner robot was the first successful rover mission to the Red Planet. For 83 sols (Martian days, typically about 40 minutes longer than Earth days), Sojourner—largely remote controlled by NASA operators on Earth—transmitted photos and data unlike any previously collected.
Sojourner was perhaps the crowning achievement of the NASA Space Telerobotics Program, an Agency initiative designed to push the limits of robotics in space. Telerobotics—devices that merge the autonomy of robotics with the direct human control of teleoperators—was already a part of NASA’s efforts; probes like the Viking landers that preceded Sojourner on Mars, for example, were telerobotic applications. The Space Telerobotics Program, a collaboration between Ames Research Center, Johnson Space Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and multiple universities, focused on developing remote-controlled robotics for three main purposes: on-orbit assembly and servicing, science payload tending, and planetary surface robotics. The overarching goal was to create robots that could be guided to build structures in space, monitor scientific experiments, and, like Sojourner, scout distant planets in advance of human explorers.
While telerobotics remains a significant aspect of NASA’s efforts—as evidenced by the currently operating Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, the Hubble Space Telescope, and many others—the Space Telerobotics Program was dissolved and redistributed within the Agency the same year as Sojourner’s success. The program produced a host of remarkable technologies and surprising inspirations, including one that is changing the way people eat.
The Space Systems Laboratory (SSL), focusing on space robotics, artificial intelligence, and space simulation, was originally founded at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. The lab conducted experiments on large-scale space structure assemblies and telerobotics using Marshall Space Flight Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Simulator, a water tank used to mimic conditions in space (NASA’s neutral buoyancy facility is now located at Johnson). Along with Marshall, SSL spearheaded the 1985 Experimental Assembly of Structures in Extravehicular Activities (EASE) experiment, which studied astronaut proficiency in assembling structures during spacewalks, as well as possible building and maintenance techniques. The success of the EASE experiment boosted interest in telerobotic applications for construction in space. In 1990, SSL moved to the University of Maryland, College Park, where it built a Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility—a 50-foot-diameter, 25-foot-deep water tank—that became the site of one of the Space Telerobotics Program’s major projects: the Ranger Telerobotic Flight Experiment.
Funded through what was then the Telerobotics Intercenter Working Group, part of the NASA Headquarters Office of Space Sciences (now the Science Mission Directorate), Ranger was SSL’s effort to produce a free-flying robot capable of assisting astronauts with tasks such as structural repairs, assembly, and on-orbit refueling. The lab developed a test robot for underwater operation—the Ranger Neutral Buoyancy Vehicle (NBV).
“Ranger was designed to easily transition from water to space,” says Joe Graves, who as a master’s and later PhD candidate served as a lead engineer for Ranger NBV. “The robot was not necessarily designed to replace astronauts. We were trying to determine how a robot could be helpful to human operations.”