August 28, 1991: The first email is sent from space using a Macintosh Portable and AppleLink software.
Sent by the crew of the Atlantis space shuttle, it reads, “Hello Earth! Greetings from the STS-43 Crew. This is the first AppleLink from space. Having a GREAT time, wish you were here,…send cryo and RCS! Hasta la vista, baby,…we’ll be back!”
First email from space, sent from a Macintosh Portable
The primary task of the STS-43 shuttle mission was to deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS, used by NASA to “provide near-constant communication links between the ground and orbiting satellites.”
The shuttle also carried a Macintosh Portable, Apple’s first explicitly mobile device (which launched a couple of years earlier in 1989).
Surprisingly, the Mac Portable only required slight modifications to function in space. During the flight, the shuttle crew tested various computer components, including the Mac Portable’s built-in trackball and an optical mouse (not built by Apple).
The use of AppleLink, an early online service aimed at connecting Apple dealers, provided an extra means of communication with Earth. The Mac also ran software that let the crew track the shuttle’s position in real time against a world map showing day and night cycles, and re-entry information. In addition, the Mac functioned as an alarm clock that reminded the crew when they needed to perform certain experiments.
The NASA-Apple connection
The Macintosh Portable wasn’t the only piece of Apple gear the Atlantis crew carried. They also wore custom WristMac watches, pre-Apple Watch wearables that transferred data to the Mac using its serial port.
In the years since the first email from space, Apple products rode along on other NASA missions. Typically, few details emerge.
One notable exception: An image of an iPod aboard a space shuttle in the 2000s. Apple reproduced the photo in its $199 Designed by Apple in California book.
“NASA images are quite extraordinary,” Apple design chief Jony Ive told Wallpaper in 2016. “We were poring over [some] one day and noticed an iPod on the dashboard, resting up there. I thought that was so funny — it was both humbling and humorous.”