Conway native living dream job at NASA

by Levi Gilbert

Kimberly Hambuchen’s life plays out like something from a sci-fi movie. Every day the Conway native lives out her dream job working with humanoid robotics at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“It’s cool. You can’t do what I do anywhere else in the world,” Hambuchen said. “I’m the only person in the world that does what I do. It’s incredible.”

Hambuchen’s current focus is on humanoid robot Robonaut 2, or R2, for short. R2 is similar in form to us. It doesn’t have legs, but it has about everything else – a head, neck, torso, arms and dexterous hands. It was born from a partnership between NASA and GM, but it is now literally out of this world.

R2 flew to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Discovery. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

“R2 was the second generation that we developed with GM,” Hambuchen said. “They wanted a robot for their car manufacturing facilities, and we needed money, so we built a partnership. With GM, we developed software that could do specific things with specific equipment – the same thing in the same place every time. We call them scripts.”

But R2’s purpose for NASA was different and significantly changed in the last six months. Hambuchen’s team was offered the opportunity of a lifetime – a chance to get R2 on the International Space Station where R2 can serve out its true purpose.

“In January, we got word that the Space Station had room on a launch vehicle and had the money to give us to get R2 space flight certified,” Hambuchen said. “It usually takes three years to do that, and we had six months.”

R2 went through severe testing, including radiation testing, vibration testing and thermal testing. The team’s software development got put on hold while R2 went through certification, but recently Hambuchen has re-focused on writing software. But the software now has to be smarter because R2’s environment is significantly different in space than what it faces with GM.

“R2 has to be developed to work side by side with astronauts,” Hambuchen said. “The focus is getting it to react smartly instead of just having it wait to be told what to do. To get it to do things we need it to do on the station, it needs to visually know where things are and if there is a person next to it. R2 has to be able to handle any changes in its environment.

“It’s been set up to do two tasks inside the station. R2 is not certified yet to go outside the station. The plan is to eventually get parts certified and fly them up for replacement and also add ‘legs’ for climbing.”

The goal is to have R2 eventually take over tasks outside of the station, which will increase safety for the astronauts. R2 flew to the ISS aboard space shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission.

“It’s very cool. None of us would have believed that we would have one of our robots up there in two years,” Hambuchen said. “It’s a big moment for my little branch. We’ve always been considered the toy factory branch – that we just made robots and played with them. Now we have something space certified and up there.”

For someone who is so in love with her work, it’s hard to believe that she almost didn’t end up in robotics.

“I thought I wanted to go to med school,” Hambuchen said. “Math and science was always my thing. I was convinced to take an independent study with an electrical engineering professor who worked in the robotics lab at Vanderbilt. I didn’t know anything about robotics.

“After that class I decided to stay at Vandy and get a master’s degree in robotics. Later on my advisor informed me to apply for a graduate fellowship with NASA. When I made my way out of grad school, an opportunity opened up in 2004, and now I’m a federal employee. It was the luck of the draw and some hard work thrown in. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but I ended up working at NASA. It’s pretty cool.”

Hambuchen credits her success to self confidence and encourages girls in the 501 to pursue their interests in math and science.

“Believe you can do it,” she said. “Don’t be intimidated. Usually the guys are the ones raising their hands during math and science classes. You have to have the brain for it. If you can’t stand math, then engineering may not be something you need to do. But if you enjoy math, if you think physics and chemistry are cool and if you like to solve problems, just do it.

“Try it. What’s the worst? You might fail, and then you just change to something else. Don’t be afraid of failure.”