Handheld PCs fly on NASA shuttle

Astronauts took the first handheld computer into space on the NASA space shuttle Columbia mission that concluded earlier this month. They were testing an application designed to provide them with graphical representations of their location in space and potential emergency landing sites.

But although the pen tablet from Fujitsu Personal Systems worked in the flight simulator substitute batteries in the computer died when they were turned on just before launch sending developers back to the drawing board. Edward Lu one of the astronauts who developed the application but who was not part of the shuttle mission said NASA still wants to use the 3.5-pound handheld system to test new easier to read displays on the shuttle.

Although the space agency is upgrading the shuttle's onboard monitors from 1970s-era meters and dials to computer displays testing out new applications is faster and less expensive using the portable machine.

"You could be displaying all kinds of information on this " Lu said. "We plan to fly this thing repeatedly with [different] displays " some of which also may use the pen input device he said adding that NASA spent about $2 000 for the system.

"They're carrying a much more current PC in an extremely portable format onto a bird that isn't at that level of technology " said David Root the Pen and Wireless Computing Division team leader with Clark Data Systems the Houston firm that sold NASA its first Fujitsu Stylistic 1000 system.

Fujitsu donated additional machines which use an Intel Corp. 486 DX4 100 MHz processor and run Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95 operating system. "There are some other portable computers on the shuttle but they are only used during orbit when things are steady and astronauts don't have their gloves on " said Tom Bayens marketing communications manager with Fujitsu Santa Clara Calif. "Certainly with gloves on you're not going to be able to use a keyboard too much."

Astronauts wear full space suits including heavy gloves during takeoff and landing partly to protect them from the craft's vibrations. Lu said regular laptops are too heavy to use during flight because of the gravitational force astronauts experience as they ascend.

The tablet was designed to be strapped to mission specialist Kalpana Chawla's knee so she could use it during takeoff and landing. Her job during the launch was to monitor the options for aborting the mission.

"We're really not sure why it died so quickly " Lu said. NASA replaced the systems' lithium-ion batteries with alkaline batteries because the original batteries have not been proven safe for flight. "The next flight when we do fly it again we are going to come up with a better battery pack or use power from the orbiter " Lu added.

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