The iPhone 4 has been in space, and the iPad will soon follow. Photo: Alex Washburn / Wired
The shuttle program may have ended in July, but NASA still maintains a crew of astronauts aboard the International Space Station, where they work on cutting-edge technologies like humanoid robots and how spacecrafts can perform autonomous refueling.
But they also spend a lot of time on decidedly consumer-edge tech. For crew staying on the ISS for six months at a time, gadgets like tablets and smartphones can make this remote outpost feel more homey and comfortable. “Everyone wants the next newest camera to be brought up,” self-funded space tourist Richard Garriott told Wired. He said the everyone on the ISS wanted to play with the Nikon D3X he took there in October of 2008.
Back in June, NASA sent a pair of iPhone 4s up into orbit on the shuttle’s last trip to the ISS to conduct experiments with some purpose-built apps. Notebook computers and even iPods have made the leap into orbit. And tablets should also be heading up in the near future.
This is all about a lot more than simply playing Angry Birds Space in space.
“We’re attempting to show how a commercial product that millions of people use can function as spaceflight hardware,” Brian Rishikof, CEO of Odyssey Space Research, said in June 2011. His company designed a piece of iPhone software called SpaceLab that was used on the iPhones sent up into orbit on the space shuttle’s final mission last summer. The goal was to see if these $500 devices could replace machines that cost 10 or 100 times as much.
“When we approached NASA with the idea, it was novel. They weren’t sure,” Rishikof told Wired. “Eventually we got them to cooperate very well, but it took awhile to convince people that these devices had capabilities worth considering. One of the important metrics of flying in space is the mass, and these things are so light and so powerful. Computationally, it’s probably one of the best performance-based computers out there.”
Because of the low mass, if iPhones and iPads were substituted for larger, NASA-designed computer systems, NASA could save on development time and money (rocket fuel ain’t cheap, you know). Astronauts also get the benefits of an intuitive, well-designed user interface and more modern technology, versus the computers the astronauts now use, which are generally five to 10 years behind the latest consumer tech.
“For a computer designed specifically for use on board the space station, odds are very good it’s not going to be as robust, user friendly, powerful, or convenient as an off-the-shelf piece of technology,” Garriott said.
But before they can be approved for space travel, gadgets have to go through a rigorous, generally two-year-long certification process to make sure they’re appropriate for use on board the ISS. When Garriott was preparing for his trip, he wanted to bring his iPod aboard. In order to get it approved, he would have had remove the internal battery, leave it on earth, wire the device to an external battery pack, and wire that back into the iPod to power it. He left the iPod at home.
“The biggest thing [with getting consumer tech certified for flight] is safety issues,” said Bruce Yost, NASA Small Spacecraft Technology Program manager. ”For instance the batteries have to be of a certain type so they don’t explode or leak.” Another issue is determining if a product emits any noxious gases. In the home or office, a plastic product treated with a solvent may give off some fumes that get diluted in the air to safe levels. “The reason why there is a sign-off process is that once you’re in orbit, you’re in an extremely closed ecosystem,” Garriott said. The livable area of the space station is about the size of a five-bedroom house, and air gets recycled. The space station’s systems may not be able to successfully cleanse certain chemicals out of the air supply.