Space Station gets handheld PCs

Members of the International Space Station crew don't need laptops to check their e-mail anymore.

In addition to dropping off a new crew, last month's Expedition 9 flight to the station included a pair of Hewlett-Packard Co. iPAQ h5550 pocket PCs and accompanying accessories. The seven-ounce iPAQ has a biometric fingerprint reader, and a touch-sensitive 3.8-inch TFT color display.

The iPAQs do much of what station laptops do, but they also bring convenience to the crew's day-to-day operations. Station crew can use the pocket PCs to record daily procedures, write personal memos, and check e-mail and calendars. The devices can also play music and display e-books and photos from home.

The devices will remain aboard the space station and be reconfigured for each new crew. Two more iPAQs are expected to launch on the next flight to the station, giving the orbital outpost a total of four iPAQs.

James Hartsfield, spokesperson for the Johnson Space Center said that it's too early to assess the usefulness of the devices, but that they are used for the same reasons on the station as on Earth: greater mobility and flexibility.

NASA's Johnson Space Center and Russia's Star City Space Center will use the iPAQ Pocket PCs on the ground during training to evaluate applications for potential use.

"They weren't brought in to solve a problem, just brought in as another information technology tool that the crew can use on board for office computer uses," Hartsfield said. "These are supplemental systems."

Alex Gruzen, senior vice president and general manager of mobile computing at HP, said the PCs are "enhancing the astronauts' productivity and helping them sustain a personal connection to life back home."

The iPAQ h5550 did not have to be custom-designed or re-engineered for space travel, so NASA was able to deliver them well ahead of schedule. The devices came with rechargeable batteries, PC Card Expansion Packs, barcode scanners and secure digital memory cards for upcoming use on the space station.

Ultimately, NASA plans to configure the HP iPAQ h5550 devices with barcode scanners and internally-developed software to track inventory on the International Space Station. NASA paid about $650 for each iPAQ.

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