Robotic eunuchs in space

Robonaut R2, the first human-like astronaut robot was awakened at the International Space Station in August 2011, and happily started tweeting to its thousands of human followers on Earth. The humanoid robot sports a torso with two human arms and hands, wears a golden helmet with a visor and looks unnervingly similar to a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica or a Clone from Star Wars.

NASA and contractor General Motors have began testing their robot on the ISS, with a view to soon having it work side by side with its human colleagues, its masters.

The robot’s torso can be attached to a single leg that R2 will use in the near future in order to move along the ISS corridors. Further into the future the descendents of R2 could explore the Lunar or Martian surfaces strapped on a four-wheeler aptly named “Centaur”. R2 is a revolutionary development for space exploration. Its engineering is remarkable:  the robot is furnished with limb and finger dexterity beyond the capabilities of a human astronaut clad in a heave space suit.

NASA’s communication experts have circulated a number of R2 photos in the media showing a mechanical wonderpiece to be more or less expected: a muscular, masculine, he-robot. I find  this projected macho image particularly interesting, as well as the ancient idea that seems to have spawned it.

R2’s image bodes well with the archetype robotic space slave first seen in the classic 1956 sci-fi movie Forbidden PlanetRobby the Robot, the creation of Dr. Morbius, was not just another “tin can” but a full member of the cast with a distinct personality and a high level of moral judgment. Like R2 Robby was a very muscular and very masculine creature, and the movie promoters did not miss the opportunity to project this.

Space robots in the late 1950s, faced with the harsh and unforgiving conditions of space, could not be anything else but hardy men. As if feminism never happened, this idea appears to have persisted well into the 21st century: R2 is unmistakably male – or isn’t he?

Robonaut2, very much like his fictional predecessor Robby (and a host of other fictional “male” space robots, e.g. Cylons, Clones, the Lost in Space Robot, etc.) lacks genitalia. Their creators – engineers and art directors alike – chose not to permit their artificial offspring the faculty of procreation. Why? Partly, I presume, because issues of robot procreation were certain to raise a few eyebrows at NASA, not to mention at MGM Studios in the 50s. There are deep ethical issues with regards to robot sex, either between robots or between humans and robots. R2’s mission is to serve in space, not in sensual, exploration. Who needs a horny robot on the ISS?

So R2 was manufactured with all the characteristics of a man except the critical three: a penis and a pair of testes . From a human perspective R2 is a eunuch.

Eunuchs have been around history for millennia. Considered loyal and indispensible they served their royal masters in a variety of tasks, domestic as well as pubic, some rising to prominence in administration or the army. Their lack of genitalia was considered an asset. Roman patricians trusted their wives to them. Byzantine emperors ushered them to the highest echelons of palace hierarchy. Ottoman Sultans used them as guardians of their precious harems. We in the 21st century trust them with our destiny, to explore new worlds for us and prepare them for our future.

“Those electrons feel GOOD!”, said R2 in his first tweet. “One small step for man, one giant leap for tinman kind.”

Perhaps “he” was being ironic.