Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis two weeks ago worked under a hectic schedule, but then, don't we all? Theirs was certainly a more exotic office, but one appliance was familiar: a portable computer.
An Apple Macintosh Portable, making its second flight into space and liberally patched with hook-and-loop fasteners to keep it from drifting away, was used in tests that will eventually result in new computer designs for future space missions. But it had more immediate duties, too.
All Earth-observation photography scheduling on the nine-day Atlantis mission was handled by a Macintosh program called Smart Alarms.
Smart Alarms was originally developed in Australia to help doctors and medical technicians handle the complex logistics of scheduling patients, operating rooms, equipment and personnel. In this case, it kept track of events both in Earth reference time and mission elapsed time. But it can be used for simple reminders, like "Meet Max at 1 p.m." or "Final income tax extension expires Thursday."
It is essentially a computerized nag. As soon as the computer is turned on, Smart Alarms reminds the user that something must happen at a given time on a given date. It will repeat its reminders periodically until the user tells it to stop.
Smart Alarms has a list price of $125, but MacWarehouse, at telephone (800) 255-6227, and several other mail-order companies are offering it for about half that price. It is also available directly from JAM Software Inc. of Meriden, Conn., telephone (203) 630-0555.
The only modification made to Smart Alarms on the Atlantis mission involved the audio enunciator, the "beep" the computer makes when a smart alarm is generated. The problem was discovered on a shuttle mission flown last October.
"It's very noisy on the shuttle," said Debra Muratore, a NASA engineer investigating computer interface issues for NASA's proposed space station. "The crew said they couldn't hear the beep amid all the ambient noise. So we used a program called MacRecorder to record musical segments, like 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' "
MacRecorder is an audio digitizer, which means it records sounds and converts them to digital forms that can be attached to other programs and replayed by a computer.
It is a delightful product for those who are interested in the emerging field of multimedia, in that it allows voice, sound effects or other audio cues to be added to the Macintosh's system softwareor Hypercard stacks.
MacRecorder has a list price of $249, and several mail-order companies are selling it for as little as $160.
For more information, call Farallon Computing Inc. of Emeryville, Calif. (415) 596-9000.
Another solution was to bring the sound right to the astronauts' wrists, using a Dick Tracy-style wrist computer called the Wristmac. The Wristmac is not really a computer, but it can store several days' worth of reminder messages, phone numbers and "to do" lists downloaded from a Macintosh.
Each Wristmac has a two-line display that can show 12 characters to a line, plus a large display of the current time.
"It may be a little big for the ladies," said David S. Rose, president of Ex Machina Inc. of New York City, which makes the Wristmac.
Earthbound customers might use the Wristmac to capture telephone numbers from a Mac data base or appointments from one of many popular schedulers, including Smart Alarms, Dynodex, Address Book Plus, Focal Point or Quickdex.
All Wristmac digital wristwatches are modified from Seiko designs and come in several styles, colors and prices.
The special "silver shuttle" model, with a stainless steel case, has a list price of $249, which includes the watch, special cables for data transfer to and from the Mac and special software. An "executive black" Wristmac is $199, and the basic, plastic Wristmac is $149. Ex Machina can be reached by phoning (212) 831-3142.
Another program that made life easier for the astronauts aboard Atlantis was Quickeys 2, a tremendously valuable utility that lets the user assign common tasks or a sequence of tasks to a single keystroke.
Quickeys offers two ways to do this. The user can in effect program the sequence, or simply perform the operation and instruct Quickeys to memorize each mouse move and click. Minimizing keyboard time is important when floating in zero gravity, or when the boss is about to go into orbit.
Quickeys 2 lists at $149.95, and it is typically discounted to $95 or so through the mail-order suppliers. Quickeys 2 is made by CE Software Inc. of West Des Moines, Iowa, (800) 523-7638.