When the Discovery space shuttle lifted off yesterday on a mission to assemble the International Space Station, it took with it six relatively standard IBM ThinkPad notebooks, the first installment of a network of computers that will allow astronauts to exchange data with each other and fetch information from mission control in Houston.
Tomorrow, members of Discovery's four-man, three-woman crew are scheduled to bring almost two tons of supplies to the space station, including electronics such as the laptop computers, a printer, and cameras, according to NASA. IBM has already been supplying its ThinkPad portables for previous Shuttle missions.
Like any modern working environment, the space station will have computer networks, according to Andy Klausman, a senior engineer with the United Space Alliance, which NASA employs to provide computer expertise.
One will use a relatively arcane technology to connect the portable computers to a central "processor." "This is what will keep the station alive," Klausman said. The other network will use standard Ethernet technology, he said.
Overall, the networks will provide vital data from mission control to astronauts and, like any other internal company network, allow the astronauts in the various modules to communicate with each other. The laptops will eventually be installed in all the modules that comprise the space station. Initially, there will be three modules: "unity," which is a U.S. module, and two Russian modules.
The upshot is that as more modules are added over the years more computers will also be added to form the same kind of network one finds in any office today with email and network-based services. "It's just like what you might find here on Earth," Klausman said.
Klausman said that astronauts will likely begin using the networks early next year. One network will run on Sun Microsystems Solaris Unix operating system and the other Windows 95. All computers, including the ThinkPads and the central system processor, employ Intel chips.
Ironically, NASA is employing older hardware technology in what will otherwise be one of the most futuristic living spaces ever built. The agency can't be on the cutting edge, because it must qualify computers well in advance. The central space station system processor is a simple Intel 386 chip, while the ThinkPads, previous-generation 760XD models, use a lagging-edge Pentium MMX chip.
Indeed, NASA is rather conservative when it comes to applying computer components, because it demands tried-and-true hardware rather than "bleeding edge" computers. On the Mars Pathfinder mission in the summer of 1997, for example, the NASA rover which roamed the Martian surface used old, though reliable, computer technology.
Nonetheless, the computers on this mission will provide technological advances, Klausman said. One of the improvements will be that astronauts can display, for the first time, the same data that mission control sees. "They [mission control and space station personnel] can see the same data now," he said.
The computers are "off-the-shelf " systems, he said, with relatively few modifications. All the circuit boards are coated to keep metallic particles from floating away in zero-gravity environments and other minor tweaks such as special "locking screws."
Though IBM now sells cutting-edge 770 and 570 ThinkPads, these have yet to be qualified by NASA, though the United Space Alliance can always use more horsepower. "We're no different than any other user, we always want more," he added.