In this blog I’ll compare the computers onboard the USS Enterprise with those used by astronauts on the International Space Station. A few of Star Trek’s predictions here are a little out of date now, but others … not so much. I’ll start with the big one, the ship’s computer.
Star Fleet ships like the USS Enterprise have some remarkably sophisticated and, as of today, still futuristic capabilities. They can run all elements of a Starship’s operations and communicate via voice commands with the ship senior officers. They are not artificial intelligence-capable, though in the original series episode “The Ultimate Computer”, their inventor, Dr. Richard Daystrom, failed catastrophically trying to create one. However, these big computers were definitely “real estate” hogs. A ship’s computer occupied an area of the ship called the computer core, which could be reached via a computer access room. Furthermore, large ships had two and sometimes three separate computer cores, physically isolated to insure both backup and redundancy.
The ISS onboard computers are equally capable of managing Space Station operations, but rather than residing in a central location, there are a number of independent systems distributed throughout the spacecraft. The so-called vehicle management computers are two separate systems, one for the US segment and one for the Russian segment. They connect together to cooperatively run flight software that controls all of the integrated vehicle hardware. Each segment has multiple redundant computers systems running in parallel as backup, for a total of about 50 computers in all. There are no displays or keyboards for these systems, all crew commands and communications are done via 15 laptop computers spread between the Russian and US sections.
Beyond that there are about 100 additional laptops and IPads networked on an open LAN within the ISS. These are called Station Support Computers, not connected to the vehicle management computers, and are used for a variety of specialized purposes like managing experiments, maintaining inventory control, doing video conferencing and sending emails.
Which brings me to Star Trek’s Personal Access Display Device, or PADD. With this one, the writers were dead on. These computers appeared as early as the original series first season episode “The Menagerie Part 1”. And now here they are on Space Station with almost the same name, IPad, and performing nearly identical tasks. In fact, Steve Jobs first introduced the IPad in 2010 with a film clip from Star Trek showing a PADD at work.
Of course, we can’t leave out the Star Trek Communicator. When this flip-top device was introduced in the original series back in 1967 it was considered a science fiction flight of fancy. That was the era of black, bulky corded dial phones that connected through the wall to a vast cross-country network of wires and switches. Some isolated users back then only had shared “party line” telephone service, and the only form of “mobile” calling was via telephone booth (also used from time to time by Clark Kent). Even the US President’s red “hot line” telephone worked like that.
The first hand-held mobile phone came on the market in 1983, and by the time Motorola introduced its so-called “clamshell” flip phone in 1996, the Star Trek Communicator was starting its slide to extinction. When placed beside today’s ubiquitous smart phone, the original series device looks like an antique.
Still, not all modern space travelers can take advantage of this miracle of communications technology. None of the many world-wide cellular systems have reached outer space yet, so when astronauts in the ISS want to phone home, they rely on what is basically a high-tech version of ham radio. The ISS so-called “Softphone” uses a headset and microphone and its call is routed by a communication satellite to their party up to 90,000 miles away (and down). Because of the distance, there’s also a one second time lag in conversations.
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Images: NASA, Star Trek © 2015 CBS Studios Inc