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A Laptop in Space

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The announcement last year that Bill Moggridge was selected to be the new head of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York gave me pause. In my daily work I tend to stay on a narrow path of aerospace-related topics, but that name sounded familiar.

Bill Moggridge

Bill Moggridge, director of the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York.

A glance at my bookshelf gave me the answer: before joining the Cooper-Hewitt, Moggridge was a co-founder of the international design firm IDEO, and while there he played a crucial role in the design of the world’s first laptop computer: the GRiD Compass, first marketed in 1982. (The unusual capitalization of “GRiD” was a trademark of the company that developed it.)  I knew about the Compass because that device was also the first laptop flown in space. According to a press release from GRiD Systems, Inc., “The GRiD Compass was first used on the Space Shuttle mission launched from Kennedy Space Center on November 28, 1983. The computer, code-named SPOC (Shuttle Portable On-Board Computer) by NASA was slightly modified for operation in a weightless environment…” (Neither this press release nor any from NASA notes the similarity between the acronym and the better-known character from the television series Star Trek.)

GRiD Compass

GRiD "Compass" Laptop

The National Air and Space Museum has several GRiD compass computers in its collections, including one that has flown on two Shuttle flights, STS-35 and STS-36. The modifications were minor: the attachment of pieces of Velcro to fasten it to various places on the flight deck, a modification of the power cord to plug into the Shuttle’s power supply, and the addition of a small fan to compensate for the lack of convective cooling in zero-G. A lot of custom work went into the development of specialized software, however: to aid Shuttle astronauts in managing their mission and assisting with navigation, and as a back-up to prepare the vehicle for return to Earth.  As with every item carried on the Shuttle, the software had to be rigorously tested before it was loaded onto the computer.

Compass in Space

STS-46 Mission Specialist Franklin R. Chang-Diaz works with GRiD "Compass" laptop on the middeck of Atlantis, Orbiter Vehicle 104.

To return to its design: the GRiD pioneered the so-called “clamshell” case for laptops, but it also had several unique qualities. Its case was made of rugged magnesium, not plastic. It had no rotating disk, which might have caused reliability problems; but rather a “bubble” memory that had no moving parts. And it used a custom, bright orange “electro-luminescent display, visible in the brightest sunlight. It is a beautiful machine to hold, and a testament to Moggridge’s, and GRiD Systems’ attention to detail. Laptop computers are nothing special today—they seem to be giving way to smaller devices including smart phones—but this one is special.

Paul Ceruzzi is chair of the Division of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum.


4 thoughts on “A Laptop in Space

  1. I remember when these early laptops were used on the Shuttle. I enjoyed learning more about the history and invention of these computers.

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