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A robot dog is training on Earth to be able to go to space one day

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A dog named Spirit has been exploring the rocks and snow on Mount Hood in Oregon and beaches in California. Spirit sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL JANGLING)

SIMON: Spirit is a robot. Scientists are training Spirit to learn about how robots navigate different types of terrain to prepare to explore the moon and, in time, different planets. That team includes Ryan Ewing, a geologist from NASA's Johnson Space Center. Mr. Ewing, thank you for being with us.

RYAN EWING: Very glad to be here.

SIMON: And Feifei Qian, a robotics professor at University of Southern California who leads the project. She's also joining us. Thank you very much for being with us.

FEIFEI QIAN: Glad to be here.

SIMON: This project is called LASSIE. That's scientific sense of humor? Why, Lassie?

QIAN: Ryan actually is the one that - who came up with this name. The - LASSIE actually stands for Legged Autonomous Surface Science in Analogue Environments. But also, you know, since our robot looks like a dog, we thought the Lassie name is actually perfect for the abbreviation of our project.

SIMON: Oh my. The legs seem to be the key in Spirit. Let me ask you, Mr. Ewing, why are - maybe I should call them leglike devices - so essential?

EWING: There are a lot of complicated terrains around our solar system, meaning mountains and craters and valleys. And our current exploration allows us to use rovers. And rovers have wheels, and we can go a lot of places with rovers. But as humans, we know we can go a lot more places with legs. So having legs allows us to explore these complex landscapes that we find on other worlds.

SIMON: Feifei Qian, why are legs so helpful?

QIAN: Yeah. So...

SIMON: I mean, I like mine, should the subject come up, but what about in exploring other terrain?

QIAN: Yeah. Well, we have all heard of the story that our, you know, beautiful rover sometimes gets stuck in the sand. So what we are hoping is by having legs just like us, our rovers and robots in the future can explore a wider variety of environments without getting stuck.

SIMON: Yeah. Ryan Ewing, what did your team learn on the most recent visit of Spirit to Mount Hood in Oregon?

EWING: We learned that the robot is very capable. We watched it climb up steep scree slopes, walk across snow, and we watched it fall down. But we also watched it get back up.

SIMON: Get back up by itself?

EWING: It could get back up by itself. It sure did.

SIMON: Wow.

EWING: So these are the attributes that we're interested in from technology. But the robot also collects science for us.

SIMON: Through sensors in its little metal legs? Or how?

EWING: Yeah, exactly. So the legs have sensors in them that, just like us, allow us to detect what's beneath it, so how soft is this surface, how stiff is this surface. And that information gets fed back to the scientists and the robotics team and other team members to help us make decisions.

SIMON: Feifei Qian, there was a dog accompanying Spirit on the most recent visit to Mount Hood?

QIAN: Yes, yes. We actually - a lot of times, roboticists to get inspiration from animals because dogs and cats, we all know that they move agilely through a variety of environments that we want our robots to be robustly operated in. So we were actually observing the dogs. We were filming the dog. We even had a GoPro that basically looks down and looks at the little paws and see how they were doing it. And that information is going to help us tremendously in when we're trying to design and program our robot.

SIMON: Ryan Ewing, where are we likely to see Spirit in use anytime soon?

EWING: We would hope that we can take it up to the moon, in short term. We're looking for ice on the moon. And Spirit, or the technology like Spirit, with legs, is a perfect tool to start exploring where ice is located. How is the ice mixed in with the soil? All of that information can feed back to science. It can also feed back to people interested in mining, or people interested in building on the surface of the moon.

SIMON: Feifei Qian, does Spirit ever flop over, ask to have their stomach rubbed?

QIAN: Oh. Oh, yeah, all the time. It has...

SIMON: Ha.

QIAN: ...Quite a temper when it falls down. It even bites sometimes because, you know, like, feet get cold, right?

SIMON: Do you give Spirit a treat?

QIAN: We did. We give a lot of battery juice, which, you know, he loves.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Oh, mercy. Both of you are scientists. But are you tempted, as I guess I've just been, to impute a personality to Spirit and treat a robot a little bit like a dog?

EWING: It's hard not to. When the dog - when Spirit is out there, you you feel like you have a companion with you, the way it behaves and walks and interacts with the terrain. It feels very natural.

SIMON: Feifei Qian and Ryan Ewing work on the LASSIE Project. I'm suppressing a bark. Thank you both very much for being with us. And also thanks to Sean Grasso, a filmmaker for the LASSIE Project. And he recorded that clip of Spirit.

QIAN: Thank you.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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