Her first steps around the lab were pretty awkward. But the 6-foot, 300-pound humanoid robot named Val may make some of the first footprints on Mars, with a little help from university students.

This May, NASA lent Val and two of her three “sisters” to universities in Massachusetts and Scotland so scientists there can tinker with her software. While she is there, NASA hopes teams of scientists can make Val into an autonomous “space mechanic,” able to use tools and accomplish construction tasks — skills that could make life possible for the first human explorers on Mars.

But for now, Earth is enough of a challenge.

Lurching around the lab, Val showed that she hasn’t quite mastered all of her 28 joints and nearly 200 sensors.

“That doesn’t look good,” said Taskin Padir, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

Woman adjusting robot (© AP Images)
Doctoral student Murphy Wonsick adjusts Val’s leg in the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s lab. (© AP Images)

NASA originally designed Val to compete in a disaster-relief robotics contest. But for Mars, the time delay in communications from Earth means humans won’t be able to direct robots in real time.

So before Val starts growing space potatoes, Holly Yanco, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, sees several challenges. The biggest one, she says, is enabling the robot to communicate, very clearly and concisely, back to Earth.

This is a big deal, according to Robert Platt, an assistant professor at Northeastern University.

“Robotics has been making tremendous strides,” he said. “It’s one of those situations where you work on the same problem for decades and decades, and something finally starts to happen. Maybe this is that time.”

This article draws on reports from the Associated Press.