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This Android is no Dummy

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A human-sized, NASA-built android used for 1960s spacesuit testing is displayed in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the National Air and Space Museums Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

A human-sized, NASA-built android used for 1960s spacesuit testing is displayed in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

First of all there is a question of just what to call this device. Is it a “dummy”? That’s what its creators called it sometimes, but that sounds too pejorative and does not give credit to its complexity. Is it a “robot”? That’s what it looks like. Or is it an “android,” defined by the dictionary as “an automaton made to resemble a human being”?

But what is an “automaton”?  “Anything that can move or act of itself,” among other definitions. That is close enough, so we will call it an “android” from now on.

The android was built in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology beginning around 1962, to test space suits for NASA. It was intended to be installed in a prototype suit (on Earth), and its limbs would be set in motion that closely resembled what a human suit wearer would do. Strain gauges would tell how much force was required to move in a suit, and therefore how much effort an astronaut needed to wear the suit. It was never intended to fly in space, and could not operate without a control console connected to it. Apparently it also could not stand on its own, but was suspended by a parachute-type harness.

The device worked on hydraulic motors, which were controlled by knobs operated by a human operator nearby. It did not have any computer or “brain” in it. Therefore I avoid the term “robot,” which implies self-contained autonomous operation, although in other respects it does resemble a robot, and that term is not totally inaccurate.

Although lacking a computer, it was nevertheless a very significant breakthrough in the ability to mimic the motions of the human body. As a dramatic demonstration of its capabilities, its designers got it to dance “the twist,” and to mimic the pelvic gyrations of Elvis Presley.

Because of the maze of tiny tubes and valves that carried hydraulic fluid, the android tended to leak, which could have damaged an expensive space suit. At times it was covered with a “wet suit” to catch the leaks, but I believe that problem was never solved. As far as I can tell, only two androids were built, and it never really fulfilled the function it was built for. The project ended around 1967.

Paul Ceruzzi is a curator specializing in aerospace computing and electronics in the Division of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum.

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  1. Pingback: Fly-Powered Planes and Other Oddities | The Daily Planet

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