A handheld space age computer. From shuttles to … film sets

Miniaturization and adaptation – the first “laptop” in space

The beginnings of the computerization era (dating back to the 1940s) are inherently associated with large-scale structures like the American ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the British Colossus and the German Z1-Z3. Three decades later, the dynamically progressing miniaturization and development of components led to the development of the precursors of the first fully portable real devices – also those that could be used in the most demanding environments and in the implementation of specific tasks: military and engineering.

Despite the initial challenges of ergonomics and proper power supply, the new technology has “found” itself in the field as well space flight, being the key to its further development. Computers were needed in space not only to operate complex control and telemetry systems, but also to directly facilitate crews’ highly complex operations before and during missions.

In general, computerization has contributed to the dynamic development of satellite systems, telecommunications and reconnaissance. Without them, it would not be possible to carry out interplanetary missions with the use of probes, landers, as well as to place a man in space for more than a few hours nevertheless, advanced life support systems are controlled by the successors of calculating machines from the beginning of the 1940’s. We could also forget about the flights to the Silver Globe the Apollo ship was controlled by the legendary Apollo Guidance Computer, whose source code can be viewed in one of the GIT repositories. A lot can also be written about the on-board computers of Gemini and Soyuz ships or the shuttles themselves.

Another interesting issue here are handheld and portable computer systems, which also quickly found their way to manned spacecraft to accompany people in the implementation of their tasks. This is where the story of the first portable computing device with a rugged hinge structure and folding screen that flown into space aboard an American shuttle stands out. It was the GRiD Compass computer (company GRiD Systems Corporation).

Weighing 5 kilograms, the rugged ancestor of today’s laptops had an 8.5 inch (21.6 cm) plasma display in the original version (GRiD 1101) and could display 3200 characters in color (25 lines by 128 columns) in a text-mode or in graphical 76,800 (320×240) pixels. The “brain” of the computer was the 16-bit Intel 8086, which controlled the central unit, with a maximum of 512 kilobytes of RAM and 340 kb of non-volatile memory at its disposal. For communication, it used a 19-pin SERIAL port, an IEEE-488 I / O port (used to connect a floppy drive or hard disk), and a modem (operating at 1200 bits per second).

Fot. jmdo/CC/Wikimedia [commons.wikimedia.org]

The “space” variant, commissioned by NASA, was slightly adapted to work in extraterrestrial space. Modifications included, among others a special cable connecting the computer to the shuttle’s power source and a small fan to compensate for the lack of convective cooling in space.

In terms of software, there wasn’t much choice at the time. By default, the consumer received the Compass Computer Operating System and the suite of office applications, as well as: a word processor, spreadsheet, terminal emulator, database program and standard business software. Optionally, there was the possibility of operating systems based on DOS (Disk Operating System), which, due to their enormous popularity, gave the opportunity to access a wide range of utility programs.

Fot. Steve Elliott/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 [flickr.com]

GRiD Compass, as a market novelty and a device with specialist applications, had a prohibitive price, i.e. USD 8,150 (equivalent to USD 23,000 in 2021) – so it was beyond the reach of retail customers who were interested in, for example, the popular IBM PC 5150 designs or computers from Apple, costing a fraction of the above price.

However, GRiD Compass quickly found its niche in professional applications – where reliability and high mobility are required. “Protolaptop” quite quickly aroused the interest of the US government, the armed forces and the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (ie the aforementioned NASA).


The new device, apart from its compact size, was characterized by a solid housing (made of magnesium alloys). An unquestionable advantage that decided about the “cosmic use” was the reduction to an absolute minimum of moving elements in the form of discs, which could be adversely affected by space travel. The device soon after its premiere was put on board the space shuttle Columbia, commencing service with the start of the STS-9 mission on November 28, 1983. GRiD served the first six-person ferry crew during the orbital expedition lasting until December 8.

A passed exam

GRiD Compass received a new operating system to support shuttle flights, taking the name SPOC (Shuttle Portable On-Board Computer). Its main task was to allow the crew to control and present the location of the shuttle in orbit and the basic flight parameters. It was also a backup computer, with a special program enabling the crew to properly execute the deorbitation maneuver (in the event of a computer failure at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, or loss of communication with them).

The device met NASA’s expectations enough to remain an integral part of the space shuttle mission for the entire decade of the 1980s (in 1984-1987 it was even to be used to handle the deployment of satellite payloads from the shuttle holds). What’s more, according to reports cited by various sources, the GRiD Compass of the STS-51-L mission survived the crash of the Challenger ferry (in January 1986), and was restored to operation after it was found.

The signals of the passing of time by GRiDs as devices of shuttle missions came only after 1989, when the GRiD 1530 model appeared in space. Intel 80386 processor, 80387 floating point coprocessor and 8 megabytes of RAM. It appeared in the STS-53 mission as the control computer for the HERCULES experiment, consisting of high-resolution digital electronic imaging in real time.

Time of successors

The farewell to the system came four years later, in 1993, after a decade of presence on NASA’s space shuttles.

Fot. NASA [nasa.gov]

The real change came shortly after, when the American agency turned its attention to devices from IBM, following the decade-long progressive standardization of personal computers in line with the idea behind the IBM PC 5150, IBM PC / XT and IBM PC / AT computers. Another “space laptop” was the business IBM Thinkpad series, which accompanied astronauts in various variants over the following years.

The first “thinking notepad” was the IBM Thinkpad 750, with a 32-bit Intel 80486SL, 4 MB RAM and a 340 MB HDD. They operated under the control of Microsoft Windows 3.1 systems. Astronauts used them to view color photos, and also served them during the repair of the Hubble telescope in 1993. Over the next decade, the 700 series, including the one equipped with a USB 1.0 port and a Pentium processor, the IBM Thinkad 770, made countless numbers in space, also hosting Mir and ISS stations.

Fot. NASA [nasa.gov]

The decline of laptops with the IBM logo fell on the years after 2003, when Thinkpads A31p began to appear in space, with a mobile Pentium 4 (clock from 1.7 to 2.0 GHz), 15-inch display, one gigabyte of RAM , a 60 GB disk and depending on the destination Windows XP or Linux on board. Their presence lasted until 2009, when the A31p was replaced by the T61p – already signed by the Chinese supplier Lenovo, which was bought in 2005 by the IBM personal computer division. This time the devices were characterized by the Intel Core 2 Duo T7700 dual-core processor, 1920×1200 display, 4 GB RAM, 100 GB disk and a wider range of operating systems: from Windows XP to Windows 7, as well as numerous Linux distributions.

In space, no one … will be without a handheld computer

The last major exchange of computer hardware in space, which took place on the side of NASA, took place in 2016 and ended with the shipment of HP ZBook 15 laptops with quad-core Intel Core i7-4810MQ processors, 32 GB RAM, two disks: HDD 1 to the International Space Station. TB and SSD 256 GB. These laptops most often run under Windows 10, although Windows 7 or Linux distributions are also noticed on them.

Fot. NASA [nasa.gov]

Despite the cyclical replacement of computer equipment in space and the rich, almost 40-year history of the presence of portable computers in space, in recent years there has been a greater freedom in the selection of equipment. Modern notebooks, which have fewer moving parts and a more compact structure (except for the hinges connecting the keyboard and the screen), and due to the fact that they have solid-state drives, are less susceptible to mechanical damage (which does not mean that computers are immune to cosmic radiation), do not require special adaptation to the conditions of orbital stations. Therefore, the current computers of manufacturers not mentioned above, such as Dell, Apple or Microsoft, as well as various smartphone manufacturers are present at the ISS, which many times exceed the computing power of GRiD computers.

However, the pioneering devices of this brand will remain for a long time in the memory of technology (and cinematography!) Enthusiasts as distinctive, reliable and equipped with a practical, yet futuristic design. The latter element gave GRiD Compass a place in popular culture and a wide group of fans who are still looking for copies associated not only with space shuttles, but also with their favorite film works (the memorable scene of operating watchtowers in the film Aliens – The Decisive Clash). Acquiring such a “retrocomputer” is currently a difficult and expensive art, which is determined not only by their popularity among enthusiasts, but also a small number of copies produced.