Will Astronauts Get iPads In Space?

The knobs and switches found in the spacecraft of the 1960's have been replaced by a glass cockpit, where the majority of commanding is done through software controls. Will astronauts be able to stop the old-fashioned (but eminently workable) twisting and flipping and go with the complex combination of taps, swipes, and swirls used on tablets?


(Concerns about tablets in space - NASA video)

“Many tasks performed inside a modern spacecraft will involve fine motor skills such as typing or interacting with a computer touchscreen,” says Kritina Holden, Principal Investigator for the Fine Motor Skills experiment now underway on the International Space Station. “In the future, astronauts will use portable computers for many tasks, including maintenance, training, medical treatment, science, time lining, and scheduling.”

It is well known that microgravity can have a detrimental effect on the human body—muscles atrophy, bones weaken, and the immune system doesn’t function properly. Are fine motor skills affected as well?

The Fine Motor Skills experiment aims to find out.

“We really haven’t seen problems, but this type of performance hasn’t really been measured systematically in space,” says Holden, who works for Lockheed Martin in Houston, Texas. “Some experiments have shown that tasks take longer in microgravity than on the ground, but no study has yet looked at the types of tests that are included in this investigation.”

The Fine Motor Skills experiment studies the effects of long-duration microgravity on the type of fine motor task performance required to interact with computer-based devices such as tablet computers with touchscreens. Crewmembers will complete four types of tasks on an iPad: pointing, dragging, shape tracing, and pinch-rotate.

“Our real concern is making sure that future crewmembers can use their computer-based devices with accuracy onboard and on a planetary surface after a long voyage, for example to Mars.”

Science fiction readers were treated to an early view of tablet computers in space. Fans of the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey got a clear view of a tablet computer right on the film's movie poster, which depicts an open pit dig on the lunar surface.


(Poster from 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Here's what Arthur C. Clarke wrote in his book version 2001: A Space Odyssey about the newspad:

When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad...


(Tablet computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey poster)

In the book version, the newspad was only used in pressurized environments (as I recall). The movie poster version went a bit further; as my friend Winchell Chung - @nyrath points out, there are a few technical problems:

Via NASA.

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