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!”
An email from space, sent from a Mac
The primary task of the STS-43 shuttle mission was to deploy a fourth TDRS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite). The shuttle carried a Macintosh Portable, Apple’s first explicitly mobile device (which launched a couple of years earlier in 1989). The Mac Portable only had to be slightly modified in order to function in space.
The Mac Portable on board allowed the shuttle crew to test various components, including its 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 Macintosh Portable wasn’t the only piece of kit that the crew had. In addition, they wore custom WristMac watches, pre-Apple Watch wearables that transferred data to the Mac using its serial port.
The NASA-Apple connection
In the years since, Apple products rode along on other NASA missions, although typically few details emerge. One notable exception: An image of an iPod aboard a space shuttle in the 2000s. Apple reproduced the image 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.”