ThinkPads replace astronauts' proprietary computers

Astronauts on four space station flights will use space-ready notebook PCs for command
and control beginning this December.

On the first of a series of missions during which astronauts will construct a space
station, they will carry two IBM ThinkPad 760ED notebooks running SunSoft Solaris 2.5,
said Linda Uljon, office chief for portable computer systems at Johnson Space
Center’s Mission Operations Directorate in Houston. NASA tested ThinkPads on a
shuttle flight this summer.

NASA chose the Sun Unix operating system because it is compatible with Unix systems
used by mission control personnel.

“The cost of maintaining one set of displays is far cheaper than two,” Uljon

To date, astronauts have used the portables only for non-command and control functions,
such as monitoring payloads and space data.

Although the astronauts will not get top-of-the-line ThinkPads, it will be “easy
to upgrade from one model to the next, because we’ll be using the same
interface,” Uljon said.

The ThinkPad 760EDs have 133-MHz Pentium processors, 48M of RAM, 1.2G hard drives,
12.1-inch screens, and CD-ROM and floppy drives.

Next year the 760XDs will have 166-MHz Pentiums, 64M of RAM and 3G hard drives.

NASA will upgrade the Solaris OS for the 760XDs and buy new portables once again in
2002, Uljon said.

To make the ThinkPads spaceworthy, NASA technicians glued the screws with a locktight
material so they wouldn’t come loose in space, he said. They also changed the power
cords to make them hard to disconnect.

“The astronauts use the cord like a tether,” Uljon said. “It needs to be
a good cord.”

NASA technicians also sprayed a coating on each computer’s boards to ensure that
floating particles do not short out the electrical components.

At least for the short term, the notebooks will run on nickel-metal hydride batteries
because NASA’s test results have shown that newer lithium-ion batteries do not work
as well in space, Uljon said.

The ThinkPads run for about three hours on batteries, but astronauts will use battery
power only as backup. They “will never be far from a plug, and they can get data
anywhere” on the station once a notebook boots and launches its software, Uljon said.

There will be at least one spare notebook in case others don’t work, Uljon said.

No overheating problems have cropped up so far, but the next set of notebooks may need
fans, she said.

The astronauts have been training with their ThinkPads hooked up to simulators that
respond to their commands as if in space, Uljon said.   


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