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Operating at zero gravity: why ThinkPads were vital for research in outer space

The year was 1993 and the Space Shuttle Endeavour was on a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. With the January 1986 Challenger disaster still fresh in both the astronauts’ and public minds, the world watched as the final flight of 1993 embarked on one of the most challenging missions ever attempted.

During the trip, astronauts spent more than a week in orbit and completed five straight days of spacewalks, a record at the time. The record-breaking mission not only repaired the faulty optics, it helped the Hubble secure a reputation as one of the most successful space-based telescopes ever launched.

Aboard the team’s shuttle was a ThinkPad 750C. It’s task? To run a test program designed to determine if radiation inherent in the space environment would cause memory anomalies in the device or generate any other unexpected problems. In addition, astronauts loaded a ThinkPad with hundreds of photos of various parts of the telescope so they could refer to them while working on the repairs.

Also onboard, the 755C, the 760ED, both tested as part of a Shuttle-Mir test and a ThinkPad used in conjunction with a joystick for the shuttle’s Portable In-Flight Landing Operations Trainer.

Since that record-setting trip, the ThinkPad team continued to find new ways to test and improve mission critical equipment such as laptops, needed in space. But this was no ordinary computer testing. In order to be “space-ready” the devices needed to be tested to their non-operational limits for safety and toxicity. They also underwent radiation testing, off-gas testing, thermal testing fire testing, and fire suppression testing before each takeoff.

Laptops used on space shuttles and aboard the space station must withstand the weightless environment. Subsequently, astronauts and the ThinkPad team worked closely over a decade to anticipate and plan for potential complications once a shuttle exited earth’s atmosphere.

Initially, there was worry that the 1993 ThinkPad’s read-write head floating just above the hard disk drive wouldn’t operate properly in zero gravity. However, because astronauts operate the machines in pressurized cabins and the space station is also pressurized, it was never a problem.

But that’s not to say modifications didn’t have to be made.

In 2000, the ThinkPads aboard shuttles were linked into the station’s wireless connection so astronauts could grab one and float around while video conferencing one another or specialists back on the ground.

Velcro tape was used to attach the computer to surfaces, upgrades were made to the ThinkPad’s central processing unit, video card cooling fans have been added to compensate for the lack of gravity and adaptors were installed so the computers could plug into the station’s 28 volt DC power.

It was the perfect blend of ingenuity and reliability.

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