Dawn was barely breaking on Friday morning over Cape Canaveral in Florida, when Matthius Biniok looked across a bay of water at the rocket that was about to take his floating robot into space.

“I feel a little bit like a father that is losing his son,” he said from the operational room at the Kennedy Space Center, 21 minutes before liftoff.

Binjok was an artificial intelligence engineer from Germany who had built the brain of CIMON, a spherical robot about the size of a basketball that would propel itself around the zero-gravity environment of the International Space Station by shooting jets of air.

Spearheaded by EADS’ Airbus, which built the “body” and much of the AI-powered software behind it, CIMON would be the first known space robot to assist astronauts, an early iteration of HAL 9000 or souped-up version of Wilson, depending on your movie preference.

Just in front of Binjok on Friday morning, around 100 engineers and scientists mingled on the Kennedy Center’s fourth-floor viewing terrace and noticed streaks of pink lighting up the dark sky behind the white crest of a SpaceX’s Block 4 Falcon 9 rocket, as the sun prepared to rise. When the bright ball of fire propelled it up into the sky at 5.42 a.m., the audience erupted in cheers and Binjok got goosebumps. “It was just beautiful,” he says.

Binjok works for IBM and built the “brain” behind CIMON, meaning the software that came from access to the artificial-intelligence platform Watson, which was used to build a deep knowledge base about running experiments in space.

CIMON (pronounced Simon) is designed to interact with anyone, but like any good space-faring robot, it has a master: German astronaut Alexander Gerst, who is conducting experiments on behalf of the German Space Agency.

The robot’s hardware was built by engineers at Airbus, a company better known for making cargo and passenger planes like the A380 but which is increasingly hiring engineers to help augment their production lines with robotic assistants.

Although robots have become an integral part of warehouses for retailers like Amazon or Ocado, it’s taken longer to put them in heavy industry sectors like aerospace because the return on investment isn’t clear.

But since at least 2016, Airbus has been developing humanoid robots that can take over the tedious or dangerous jobs in its factories. Airbus’s senior systems engineer Philip Schulien started developing CIMON two years ago with 5 million euros in funding from the German Space Agency and an undisclosed investment from Airbus to solve a challenge the Franco-German company was having in space. Running experiments was becoming expensive.

Like many commercial entities, Airbus occasionally hires NASA’s scientists to conduct experiments on biological and man-made materials on the ISS. Companies are known to pay around $100,000 to fly materials up into space for this purpose, says Schulien.

“You can find things out that you couldn’t find out in normal gravity,” he adds, and that could inform what materials a company like Airbus ends up choosing to use for new aircraft components.

But experiments on the ISS can include dozens of steps. Astronauts often have to float over to a laptop attached to the wall, to check a PDF for the next step, before floating back to their station over and over again.

“It takes a lot of time, and you have to stop your experiment in between,” says IBM’s Biniok, noting that hiring “crew time” for experiments on the ISS is costly. For this particular trip, Airbus is planning to squeeze its experiments on CIMON and other materials into just three hours. “With CIMON you can actually ask him to come to you because he’s an autonomous, free-flying robot.”

Though IBM’s foothold in robotics is well established with partners like SoftbankRobotics’ Pepper robot, Airbus has some way to go in the field. That’s why Schulien sees CIMON as an important showcase of technology that Airbus could start making for other industrial customers who have workers in confined, isolated spaces, and not just its own supply chain.

One serious consideration is to use CIMON in deep-space missions to Mars. For now, Airbus is closely observing how successfully their robot interacts with the astronauts in space, and whether the humans perceive it as a help or a hindrance. One risk they don’t have to worry about is CIMON becoming ultra-intelligent and taking over the Space Station, to reference another movie plot point.

The robot’s artificial intelligence is based on a technique called supervised learning, Schulien notes. “So there’s not the possibility that CIMON is self-learning and will evolve in a direction that we don’t want to have.” With CIMON about to meet his master, that’s something his creators  don’t have to worry about.