IBM blasts off with ThinkPads in space

When the space shuttle Endeavour blasts off tomorrow, astronauts aboard will be equipped with IBM ThinkPad notebooks for the 11-day mission.

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When the space shuttle Endeavour blasts off tomorrow, astronauts aboard will be equipped with IBM ThinkPad notebooks for the 11-day mission.

This isn?t the first time that the portable computers have been put to work in space. In 1993, NASA astronauts used an IBM portable during a mission to repair the crippled Hubble telescope. But their increased use in space missions and on international space stations demonstrates the versatility of portables in space.

For its part, IBM is trying to get as much public relations value out of the mission as possible, especially as the company plans to introduce a series of new products next month.

IBM has been touting what it calls the ?edge? of the network, or EON, as a guiding principal behind all its future PC products. Big Blue in February plans to rebrand its PC line and introduce simpler models, including one built around a LCD display.

Taking a page from science fiction, IBM plans to show off prototypes of a new portable, a wearable PC based on the ThinkPad 560. The U.S. Army is currently testing the wearable PC, and NASA reportedly has expressed some interest in using the technology.

Portables on space missions make a lot of sense, International Data Corp. analyst Roger Kay said. By relying on portable notebooks instead of installed PCs, NASA can spread its computing power and apply technology to specific tasks.

"I wouldn?t mind having my ThinkPad floating there next to me ready for whenever I want to use it," Kay quipped.

The shuttle?s notebooks don?t exactly float freely, but are held down by Velcro strips so astronauts aren?t injured by a flying PC. Keeping in mind that shuttle astronauts work in zero gravity, it is not unusual for portables to be attached to the shuttle?s wall or ceilings.

Three varieties of ThinkPads will be used on the mission. The crew will rely on several ThinkPad 760XDs as a general-purpose Payload and General Support Computers, "or PGSC, a good NASA acronym," said Andy Klausman, a staff engineer with Houston-based United Space Alliance, a contractor for the space shuttle.

Those units will primarily be used for email, sending files back and forth between the orbiter and the ground, displaying a world map with the shuttle?s current location, and tracking where gear is stowed.

A ThinkPad 755C will collect data from a global positioning satellite (GPS) receiver during the shuttle?s ascent into space and re-entry. NASA eventually plans to incorporate GPS features into the shuttle?s navigational system.

Endeavour?s main mission will be one of radar topography, for which it will in part rely on ThinkPad 760Es. Two separate antennas separated will collect radar images to formulate three-dimensional maps of the earth.

One of the frequent problems for the portables is the effect of space travel. While the notebooks generally survive the ride into orbit, other things can potentially go wrong.

"The notebooks are not designed for space flight, so we have to be aware of the impact the environment can do, such as radiation hitting the memory and changing it," Klausman said. "That happens every flight."

So far radiation has not seriously compromised data collected on missions, but the potential for problems is one reason why NASA doesn?t use the IBM portables for critical operations.

NASA also locks down the power supplies, so the crew doesn?t accidentally kick them loose while they are floating around the shuttle space.

The notebooks are attached to a local-area network on the shuttle and connect remotely to a NASA computer for data transfer, sending email and transmitting other information. NASA eventually plans to use wireless networking. All the notebooks run Windows 95 with tentative plans to switch to Windows NT.

Some of the ThinkPads are equipped with videoconferencing equipment, which is used by medical personnel as well as families on the ground to talk with astronauts in space.

The International Space Station, which is partially constructed and tentatively scheduled to become operational later this year, also carries IBM ThinkPads. U.S. and European astronauts also left at least three ThinkPad 750Cs on the now defunct Russian space station Mir.

The space shuttle was originally scheduled to launch today, but was postponed due to computer problems and poor weather conditions in Florida, according to CNN.