Watch SpaceX troubleshoot iPad issue with NASA astronauts using AirDrop during spaceflight

Law breaking boats weren’t the only surprises SpaceX experienced during an otherwise smooth NASA astronaut splashdown over the weekend. An issue involving a custom SpaceX app on the iPad also made a cameo appearance during the crewed return trip from the International Space Station to Earth.

iPad mini manuals

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is a 21st-century capsule equipped with giant touchscreen panels and digital spaceflight manuals viewed on iPads. Through part of their journey, astronauts inside the capsule wear special space suits with touchscreen-compatible gloves for controlling the buttonless control panels and paperless manuals. The spacecraft is also programmed to fly itself during spaceflight with the option for crew to take over as needed.

These special space suits actually connect to the ship to handle communication, cooling, and pressurization. Astronauts can also strap their Apple tablets onto their flight suits to avoid losing their digital manuals during flight or while experiencing zero gravity. It’s a modern alternative to overly complicated control switches and thick instruction set binders.

Space bugs

But no technology is so perfect that it can’t bug out during an astronaut return flight home in a brand-new spacecraft that’s never landed crew before. One of the crew iPad mini tablets briefly became the subject of a quick dialogue between SpaceX Crew Operations and Resources Engineer Anne Menon and NASA astronaut Bob Behnken.

SpaceX Crew Operations and Resources Engineer Anne Menon (top left) at SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California

The communication started with Astronaut Behnken explaining that he had an issue with something before communication dropped out momentarily. A few seconds later, the astronaut read out an error message presumably from the custom SpaceX application created for the iPad.

“A timeline application on my tablet, uh, gives me a error message that says Safari cannot open the page, and then it’s got a HTML address because your iPad is not connected to the internet,” Behnken reported. “Can you confirm that Wi-Fi is off and AirPlane Mode is on,” asked Menon. Then the NASA astronaut improvised with a go-to troubleshooting step.

“Yes, uh, Wi-Fi is off and AirPlane Mode is on. If you have the display cameras up, I’ll try to show it to you,” Behnken suggested. “We will take that,” Menon replied. “We’re coming up on a ground station pass and we have the display camera up. And Dragon SpaceX, can you bring that a little bit closer? Dragon SpaceX, we’ve got a good image of that. Thank you, we will look into that and get back to you. And to be clear this is just happening, Bob, on your tablet, not on Doug’s?”

“Yes, it’s happening on my tablet,” Behnken answered. “I did have a fine timeline before but when we started to set up and load the changes that you just read up to us it just went to that page instead of the timeline I had up before.”

View from 4:16:21

AirDrop to the rescue

Astronaut Behnken took a break from the iPad’s timeline app issue to take some space photography of Australia and prepare for an overnight sleepover in the Crew Dragon capsule before arriving back on Earth the following day.

The issue with updating the digital timeline app was later determined to mostly likely be caused by a caching issue when saving an update. SpaceX eventually requested that astronaut Doug Hurley take screenshots of his day timeline as a backup in case his app experienced the same caching issue. Then each astronaut was instructed to briefly turn on wifi to enable the iPad’s AirDrop feature for wirelessly sending the screenshots between iPads.

It was also explained that mission critical documentation would be located in Adobe Acrobat on the tablet and would not be affected by the caching issue. At any rate, the slight blip in functionality is likely to be among the limited issued that will need to be addressed before the next astronaut splashdown. (Other issues include tighter security to keep boaters away, a better effort to remove dangerous gases from around the spacecraft before astronauts exit, and an additional backup generator for SpaceX’s recovery vessel.)

Mission success

NASA astronauts Behnken and Hurley successfully splashed down inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola on Sunday. The final step concluded their mission to test the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft for human spaceflight.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The first operational mission aboard the International Space Station since the completion of the demonstration mission will launch from Kennedy Space Center in mid-September. Astronauts for the later Crew-2 mission have already been selected, including astronaut Megan McArthur (Bob Behnken is her husband), who will return to the ISS in the same spacecraft used by the SpaceX Demo-2 mission.

NASA unveiled plans to have overlap between Crew-1 and Crew-2 on the International Space Station during each six-month duration mission.

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