Science Monday: Astronaut Dilema, Spray-on Skin, Robonaut, Funding the Final Frontier + More

Welcome back to Science Friday! It’s been a long hiatus while I was away on field work in the great white south, but I’m back in action. So, be on the look out for regular Science Fridays again! This week, on a special Monday edition, Astronaut Mark Kelly makes a tough decision, heal burn victims in days with a new spray gun, and give a send off to Robonaut 2 as it prepares to launch into space. All this and more plus an infographic, image, and gadget of the week!


Astronaut Mark Kelly Decides to Fly Final Space Shuttle Mission
STS-134 will be the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavor and, likely, Mark Kelly’s last chance to go into space. But, he had a tough decision to make. On Jan. 8 his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was nearly killed when she was shot in the head in front of a Tucson, AZ grocery store. Mark has been by his wife’s side throughout her recovery, but he needed to decide whether to stay with her or command his final space mission. At Kelly’s request, NASA had appointed a backup commander to train with STS-134 in his absence, but Kelly has decided that he will return to command STS-134:

"I ultimately made the decision that I would like to return and command STS-134," Mark Kelly said at a press conference yesterday at Johnson Space Center in Houston. "I absolutely thought this was the right thing for me to do."

"I know her very well and she would be very comfortable with the decision that I made," Kelly said.

Heal Severe Burns in a Matter of Days With ‘Spray-on Skin’
Doctors have invented a revolutionary new spray gun that fires stem cells onto damaged skin, and it has already been used successfully on a dozen patients. Rather than spending months to laboriously grow new sheets of skin, stem cells are harvested from a small patch of healthy skin and sprayed back onto the affected area in solution. University of Pittsburgh’s Jorg Gerlach explains that the process takes only 90 minutes and can heal burns in as little as four days. It eliminates a major flaw in current burn treatments in which patients can die from infection in the time it takes to grow new layers of skin in the lab. The skin gun will be featured on the National Geographic Channel on Monday February 7 on “How to Build a Beating Heart”.

Revolutionary new stem cell gun

Robonaut 2 Set to Launch in February
NASA’s Robonaut 2 is primed and ready for launch aboard space shuttle Discovery this month to join the crew aboard the International Space Station. The dextrous humanoid robot will be traveling ahead of its legs, which will follow on a later launch. “The robot’s legs aren’t ready yet,” says Rob Ambrose of the Johnson Space Center. “We’re still testing them. But there will be plenty for R2 to do while waiting for its lower extremities.” R2 will be the first humanoid robot to travel to and operate in space, with the long term goal of becoming the space station crew’s right hand. The R2 will start in training mode, hooked up to a fixed pedestal in front of a task board on which it will learn to operate switches, knobs, and connectors like the astronauts do. Once the legs are added, R2 will be able to whiz around the station performing mundane tasks such as vacuuming air filters for the crew. Eventually, Robonaut 2 will be able to perform EVAs (spacewalks) and perform more complex tasks.

Robonaut 2 preps for its journey into the final frontier

Infographic of the Week: Funding the Final Frontier (via

Click to embiggen

Image of the Week: Nyiragongo’s Lava Lake

Nyiragongo is one of only three volcanoes in the world to host an active lava lake in its summit crater. Lately, the lava lake has been increasingly active and lake levels have risen several meters. A team of German scientists were on hand last month to take some incredible photos. Make sure to see their gallery for more amazing images. The picture below shows the lava lake, red hot, with a gigantic volcanic plume steaming away from the depths of the Earth. Gorgeous!

Click to see the full sized version

Gadget of the Week: CBS Interactive Updates Star Trek TOS Communicator App for iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad
Surprisingly enough, CBS Interactive just released an update to the official Star Trek Original Series Communicator app for Apple devices. The new update (version 1.1) features new sound effects and the ability to choose your favorite classic Star Trek lines while ‘communicating’ with our crew. There is also a bit of new dialogue featuring Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Scotty, McCoy, and Uhura and some snappier graphics to boot. The upgrade is free if you already own the app. If not, the app is $0.99 to buy.

Screen shots from the newly updated communicator app


If you are on Twitter, you know there are plenty of amazing people out there tweeting away. And, many of them are scientists! Every Friday I’ll be bringing you a new list of great scientists, techies, and trekkies to follow on Twitter. This week…

  • @NASA_Johnson: NASA’s Johnson Space Center is the lead center for space shuttle and ISS activities and is home of the Mission Control Center and NASA astronaut corps.
  • @BadAstronomer: Phil Plait: Astronomer, author, skeptic, funny guy, writer, budding TV deity
  • @AwkwardEmbraces: A self-proclaimed kick ass web series, and creators of this gem: “The Favorite Episode”.

Science Bytes
Not enough science for you? Here’s a warp-speed look at some more science tid-bits that are worth your time.

  • Mars scene proves to be a changing one via AZ Daily Star
  • A fizzy ocean on Enceladus via NASA Science News
  • NASA press conference on latest findings from the Kepler mission via C-SPAN


TrekMovie’s Science Friday is an homage the the great NPR radio show Science Friday. Science Friday® is a registered service mark of ScienceFriday Inc.

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When are they going to start making fembots?

Harry, Only you would think of that before anyone else would, my hat is off to you!

None the less…good point. Space should equal oppertunity and in many ways a fembot would be ideal for reaching out ot the stars to boldly go where no fembot has gone before.


There already is a fembot. Her name is Erica Durance.

I bet Mark Kelly talked to his wife before agreeing to the mission. Can’t imagine him going up into space without her blessing.

That stem cell gun is neat.

The whole article was fun. Thanks Kayla!


Don’t insult fembots that way! At least THEY can be programmed to show emotion!


Ooops, I neglected to mention the fact that she was a failed experiment. Once they realized Ms. Durance has no skills, emotions, talents or any other human-like capabilities, the scientists and engineers shut down the rest of the line. Unfortunately, for some reason, they were unable to successfully pull the plug on Erica Durance.

Thus, the reason why no one wants to attempt another fembot!

Also, another reason why there aren’t many fembots is that men would try to have sex with them. :-)

“Enceladus Up on the rocks, please.”

The spray skin looks very McCoy-ish. 4 days is an amazing time for healing. Stem cells. You know, the thing that made W. weep. (Lord, I hate anti-intellectual slugs like him.)

Anyhoo —

Thanks Kayla.

ps – If you think fembots are extinct, you haven’t seen Faye Dunaway or Sharon Stone lately. (and you’re lucky)

What’s with all the Erica Durance hate? It’s going to make me cry. Sniff Sniff.

Dad! We’re going to rescue you!

The stem cell gun instantly reminded me of Dr. Chapel’s spray applicator when she was treating Chekov’s hand in STTMP. The future is now!

The robot’s name is R2? Really? Does this thing chirp to communicate? How about something more sophisticated like HAL? Um… never mind.

Thank you, Kayla, for Science Friday updates! is not the same without the
weekly updates.. You’re hard work, and everyone
else involved is greatly appreciated.

p.s. The communicator App is free in
droid – and it is perfect (if you like that
kinda thing).

Love the skin gun – very Star Trek!

Awesome work Kayla! Thank-you.

I read in another story about R2 that the argument for a humanoid robot was that it could use tools designed for humans. I seem to remember the same argument from “I, Robot” (the book, of course, not that . . . movie).

Sure… today it’s pressing knobs, operating switches, vacuuming, but what happens when Robonaut outgrows it’s own programming and develops AI, and want’s to do the really cool stuff like pilot space ships, and NASA say no! That’ll be one angry robot who knows how to press a lot of buttons and operate a lot of switches!! Hal, V’ger, Officer Ash, that really strange Dog thing from Mission to Mars, CYLONS!! The Matrix, Cyberdyne!! Need I go on! :)

p.s. awesome article Kayla, and wishing Kelly and his family all the very best, and everyone involved with STS-134!

8. CmdrR – February 7, 2011

“Enceladus Up on the rocks, please.”

The spray skin looks very McCoy-ish. 4 days is an amazing time for healing. Stem cells. You know, the thing that made W. weep. (Lord, I hate anti-intellectual slugs like him.)

Actually Bush only had a problem with doing research on EMBRYONIC stem cells that weren’t already approved (don’t remember him ever weeping about it though). Bush had no problems with research on Adult stem cells which is what this device uses. Stem cells from the actual patient are used so there isn’t a chance of rejection. I only know this because I happened to be watching the Nat Geo show when I started reading this article, kind of a weird coincidence actually.

@1: As soon as they can haul ’em out of the uncanny valley and stop them from being creepy as hell? Have you SEEN some of those singing robot girls from Japan? Nightmare. Fuel. Unleaded.

@16: Seconded. Mark Kelly is a badass.

Harry. You my friend are one of a kind. I have the Tos App on my Sprint Evo phone. Realy kool. Looks like we are getting closer and closer to a Thermal Regenerator for healing Skin and Burns. Thank you Kayla for a great Article and welcome back to the land of the free and Harrys Post. Lol

Over in Live Chat. Rosario T. Calabria posted that Anthony emailed and said he was ok. No details though but at least he is ok. Always good news to hear.

KAYLA great article! Glad your back!!


Thanks, I think. :>)

What the hell would Robonaut 2 want a set of legs for in space??? Unless the legs have got monkey feet on them instead of toes, in which case I could see the robot would be more useful when it comes to mercilessly strangling four members of the ISS at a time instead of just two.

With the Constellation program scrapped what will NASA replace the shuttle with?

#24 – it appears spit wads.

@ 24 Perhaps a really big catapult?

wow the “skin gun” is amazing! I’m telling everyone about it right now!

And need that communicator app…another Star Trek app to add to my Star Trek page on my iPod….:)

Hey Kayla – thanks for the shout out for the Nat Geo “How to Build a Beating Heart” show! I came up with the idea for the show…

love these articles

24- Exactly! Privateers with tin-can designs, rushed into production.
In the meantime, we’ll be spending millions on hitching rides with the Russians.
It was scrapped purely for political reasons- can’t allow any programs The Evil George Bush started survive, now can we?
Makes no difference that billions had already been spent on it- a far safer launch system than the shuttle ever was. Nor that it was already successfully TESTED…
So let’s reinvent the wheel, AGAIN, shall we? Thanks Mr. POTUS.

Welcome back, Kayla! Really missed your articles and glad your back safe from your “expedition”.

The spray healer is fantastic! Such good news for those suffering from one of the most painful injuries imaginable.

I’ll be interested in seeing what tasks the robonaut will be capable of doing.

Already looking forward to you next article. Again, WELCOME BACK, KAYLA!

The communicator app for Droid is not done by CBS, but it is awesome! The fellow who did it actually made two apps, one is the above dialer, the other is a live wallpaper with sound effects and virtual flip antenna grid (which makes the famous sound). In fact, I made my own “theme” I have the live wallpaper, and my notification tone is the hailing tone (the beep-beep). My ringer is a sound byte of Uhura, “Enterprise to Captain Kirk”.

Love science friday, whether it’s on NPR or here, or whether it’s on Friday or Monday. :)

Is it too much to ask for R2 to have a red light going back and forth for an eye or give him a lance and cyberhorse and laser lance like on the old cover of Lem’s Mortal Engines? If you’re going to do a robot, do it RIGHT. It should also refer to everyone as “Dave” in a calming voice.

In other science news (I’m calling it science news, anyway), if you know anything about what Peak Oil theory predicts, you’ll also know why this Wikileaks release is big news:

These kind of concerns usually belong to the fringe nuts like me. Now comes evidence that our own government has information that our fears are founded and isn’t leveling with us. Which is the equivalent of not telling the residents of New Orleans that a swarm of Category 5 hurricanes is coming their way at the same time.

I love robots!

And yes, where are the fembots?