The Queen and I (and some robots)


While working at NASA, I met many famous people, but none more memorable than Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain during her 1991 visit, where I guided her through the robotics demo at NASA.   It was memorable not only because of her, but also what almost didn’t happen at the demo.  Everyone has a war story to tell, and this one is mine.

The preparation for her visit started a year before, when her emissary visited NASA.   I gave the emissary a tour of the robotics lab, and they loved it.  Later they requested NASA to have me guide her through the robotics demo.

NASA EVA Retriever

After much preparation, the day of her visit finally came.  The robots were set up exactly where we wanted, and the demo was rehearsed over and over.  We had the EVA Retriever talking and gliding on the air-bearing floor, and the Utah-MIT Hand catching flying balls.

Utah-MIT Hand

Just when we thought everything was going smoothly, the robot arm that held the ball-catching hand stopped working.   It was my demo, and I had to fix it.  I looked at the clock and saw that the Queen will arrive in 30 minutes.  With no time to waste, I tried to fix the robot.  It wasn’t long before I found a “fried” circuit board.  My heart sank, and I silently petitioned God to help me avoid this potentially very public embarrassment.

Queen Elizabeth enjoying the robot demo.

At that moment, I  recalled that a year ago, a technician came and serviced the robot and left a circuit board with us unintentionally.  I dashed towards the robotic lab, rummaged through the storage cabinets, and found the circuit board, covered in dust.

With only 15 minutes to spare, I ran back with the circuit board, but the Secret Service  wouldn’t let me back in until I showed them my credentials and had the security dogs sniff me over.

The Queen and I having a technical discussion.

It was a joyous moment when I saw the power come on after I plugged in the replacement circuit board.   I had to quickly write a program to move the robot arms in place so it was not obvious that something was wrong.

With only a few minutes left, I wiped off the sweat on my forehead, put my coat back on, and rejoined the group for the Queen’s arrival.

“Welcome to NASA, Your Majesty!”

Further Reading:

(The above article is solely the expressed opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of his current and past employers)

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