The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, it’s said, so it is particularly nice to be able to report that some recent plans of mice and men came off just fine. (Well, okay, most of them were trackballs of one form or another, not mice.)
I’m speaking, of course, about STS-43, the recent flight of the space shuttle Atlantis and its "Mac In Space II" projects. Despite a few problems that delayed the start of the mission, and some small glitches during the Macintosh phases, the Mac-related parts of the mission have been labeled successful by the AppleLink and NASA teams that were involved. In addition to the AppleLink connection we discussed in issue 74, the Macintosh Portable projects included the testing of four cursor-control devices, the recording of lower body negative pressure (LBNP) medical test results, shuttle flight path tracking, and reminding the crew of timed events using a WristMac.
The first AppleLink message from space came through after a few tries. It was a simple message, as befits a first attempt:
"Hello Earth ! Greetings from the STS-43 Crew. This is the first Applelink from space. Having a GREAT time, wish you were here,… send cryo,and RCS! Have a nice day…… Hasta la vista, baby,… we’ll be back!"
[Editor’s note: cryo = cryogenics (meaning, send more fuel for life support–air, etc.); RCS = Reaction Control System (meaning, send more fuel for maneuvering/control). In other words, they wanted to stay up there!]
According to Michael Elliot Silver, AppleLink Development Project Manager, this success came after two failed connections. An error message reading "The modem pool is not responding" was reported by the Atlantis crew, apparently caused by a spike in the signal putting the ROLM data switching system "back to sleep" after a connection had been established the first time. The second failure occurred because the ROLM had not reset itself properly. The third time was the charm, but because the TDRS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite) was in low-power mode (part of one of the experiments) and because the shuttle was at a poor attitude in relation to the TDRS, the signal was very weak, and after a couple of minutes the signal began dropping in and out and was lost. For more information on how the connection worked, see the article in TidBITS-074.
The cursor-control experiments were designed (by Lockheed scientists) to determine what kinds of cursor-control devices might be suitable for use on future shuttle missions or on the planned space station. Since there is no gravity to speak of in orbit, a mechanical mouse, which depends on gravity holding a heavy ball against rollers, is useless. The devices that were tested were the Mac Portable’s trackball, a modified aircraft control stick fitted with a thumb ball at the top, a two-inch trackball, and an optical mouse. No test results are available as yet, but we will try to pass them along as soon as Apple or NASA releases them!
According to earlier reports, the Macintosh is not the computer of choice for the space program; a DOS-compatible laptop is. However, Lockheed discovered that the Macintosh had the widest variety of pointing devices available right now, so it became the obvious choice for the experiments. Some future experiments will probably take place with a DOS laptop, but if this mission is any indication, the astronauts will soon be clamoring to get their Macintosh back!
The other tasks performed on the Macintosh were less test than actual productive work. Eagle Technical Services provided the programming for the Lower Body Negative Pressure experiments, in which the astronauts collected medical information on how the lower body reacts to weightlessness and other environmental oddities during space missions. And, using software similar to the freeware Hubble Space Telescope tracking utility, the astronauts were able to monitor their orbital status and position relative to the ground using MacSpOC (Shuttle Portable Computer), a special program developed by Dan Adamo.
Naturally, trying to do all these experiments at once was difficult. According to Silver, astronaut Jim Adamson put it best when he said, "The problem is, we only have one Macintosh on board." With luck, the successes from this mission will convince NASA planners to include Macs on future shuttle missions… and with the smaller, less-bulky Mac Portables on the way, that should be even easier than before.
If you are interested in more of the details about the shuttle mission, the material released by Apple’s Michael Elliot Silver (which includes a complete set of Debra Muratore’s official NASA progress reports) should be widely available by now. One place to check is the Memory Alpha BBS, at 607/257-5822, in the "STARNET" file section.
Rick Holzgrafe — [email protected]
Michael Elliot Silver — AppleLink
Debra Muratore — NASA