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Posted: 5/14/2002 7:17:58 AM EDT

For Old Parts, NASA Boldly Goes . . . on eBay

May 12, 2002
For Old Parts, NASA Boldly Goes . . . on eBay

NASA needs parts no one makes anymore.

So to keep the shuttles flying, the space agency has begun trolling the
Internet - including Yahoo and eBay - to find replacement parts for
electronic gear that would strike a home computer user as primitive.
Officials say the agency recently bought a load of outdated medical
equipment so it could scavenge Intel 8086 chips - a variant of those chips
powered I.B.M.'s first personal computer, in 1981.
When the first shuttle roared into space that year, the 8086 played a
critical role, at the heart of diagnostic equipment that made sure the
shuttle's twin booster rockets were safe for blastoff.
Today, more than two decades later, booster testing still uses 8086 chips,
which are increasingly scarce. NASA plans to create a $20 million
automated checking system, with all new hardware and software. In the
meantime, it is hoarding 8086's so that a failed one does not ground the
nation's fleet of aging spaceships.
The same is true of other obsolescent parts, dozens of them.
"It's like a scavenger hunt," said Jeff Carr, a spokesman for the United
Space Alliance, the Houston company that runs the shuttle fleet. "It takes
some degree of heroics."
Troves of old parts that NASA uncovers and buys, officials said, are used
not in the shuttles themselves but in flotillas of servicing and support
gear. Such equipment is found, and often repaired, at major shuttle
contractors around the nation, as well as at the Kennedy Space Center in
Florida, where the shuttles blast into orbit.
That old computer in your basement? NASA is not interested. The agency and
its contractors want stockpiles of old parts to buy in bulk for repairing
old machinery and building inventories of spare parts.
Recent acquisitions include outdated computer chips, circuit boards and
eight-inch floppy-disk drives. "One missing piece of hardware can ruin our
day," said Mike Renfroe, director of shuttle logistics planning for the
United Space Alliance at the Kennedy Space Center.
Recently, Mr. Renfroe said, his team swept the Internet to find an
obsolete circuit board used in testing the shuttle's master timing unit,
which keeps the spaceships' computers in sync. None could be found. A
promising lead turned false. Finally, a board was found. It cost $500.
"That's very inexpensive," Mr. Renfroe said. "To hire a design engineer
for even one week would cost more than that."
NASA's growing reliance on antiquated parts is in some ways a measure of
how far its star has fallen. In the early 1960's, the agency played a
leading role in founding the chip industry. Its mass purchase of the
world's first integrated circuits set the fledgling business on the road
to profitability.

-- continued --
Link Posted: 5/14/2002 7:19:29 AM EDT
In turn, the expensive chips let NASA achieve feats of miniaturization
that put advanced satellites into orbit and men on the moon. Thousands
went into the lunar lander, making its guidance computer "smaller,
lighter, faster, more power-efficient and more reliable than any other
computer in existence," as T. R. Reid wrote in "The Chip" (Simon &
Schuster, 1984).
Today, NASA is increasingly a victim of its own success. Civilian
electronic markets now move so fast, and the shuttles are so old, that
NASA and its contractors must scramble to find substitutes.
In the past, NASA procurement experts would go through old catalogs and
call suppliers to try to find parts. Today, the hunt has become easier
with Internet search engines and sites like eBay, which auctions nearly
Mr. Carr of the United Space Alliance said that when the government bought
complex systems like jet fighters, the contracts often had provisions that
called for routine upgrades and improvements as a way to limit
obsolescence. But the shuttles, with a design lifetime of a decade, never
had that kind of built-in refurbishment plan.
The winged spaceships are to fly until 2012. But NASA is researching
whether their retirement date can be pushed back to 2020.
For parts hunters, it could be a long haul. The shuttles, Mr. Renfroe of
the United Space Alliance noted in an awed tone, "could go for 40 or 50

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
Link Posted: 5/14/2002 8:42:56 AM EDT
If they want to keep 'em flying, they're going to have to do the same thing the Air Force has done with B-52's - upgrade.

The problem will be gettin money for upgrades.  Just like the military, it's easier to get money for flashy new "systems" than it is for dull "maintenance."  "Maintenance" doesn't bring pork-barrel jobs like "systems" do.
Link Posted: 5/14/2002 9:37:41 AM EDT
The problem with the space shuttle is that they are try to keep it flying far longer then it's design life. NASA is stuck, they have to have the space shuttle to go to the Space Station, and the Space Station has eaten up all the money to build a next generation RLV. It's a viscous cycle that in the bends the program over and does it dry, it's simply not a good situation.

Off course if the space station would have been built like NASA designed it, launched in three pieces by a shuttle derived HLV, the space station would have been more capable and cost half. Thank Al Gore for the redesign to it's current over budget, delayed, international form, he ordered the redesign in 1995-1996. Again, it's NASA's messed up thinking, they have to have the station to justify the shuttle, they have to have the shuttle to justify the station. If they were smart and wanted to score a public relations coup, they should invest a measly $50 billion, and go to Mars, for $100 billion spread over 20 years we could establish a permanent and expanding presence on the red planet. Or alternatively in the next decade for an investment roughly the same we could develop and build a space elevator and make the cost of access to space cheaper then a plane ticket.

Of course either of those goals requires logic, and thus will not be done. NASA is in trouble and needs new leadership badly, not a bean counter with no vision like Keeife, or whatever his name is.
Link Posted: 5/14/2002 9:54:10 AM EDT
Hmmmm..I wonder if the Space Shuttles on board computers uses the DOS Operating System...

if so..at least it is more stable (doesn't crash as much) than Windows..
Link Posted: 5/14/2002 10:08:58 AM EDT
DOS Operating System...
View Quote

DOSOS? Never heard of that one. [;D]
Link Posted: 5/14/2002 10:17:59 AM EDT
Hmmmm..I wonder if the Space Shuttles on board computers uses the DOS Operating System...

if so..at least it is more stable (doesn't crash as much) than Windows..
View Quote

Microsoft still supports DOS. I think they are up to something like version 8.
Link Posted: 5/14/2002 11:19:42 AM EDT
Hmmmm..I wonder if the Space Shuttles on board computers uses the DOS Operating System...

if so..at least it is more stable (doesn't crash as much) than Windows..
View Quote

Microsoft still supports DOS. I think they are up to something like version 8.
View Quote

Only if you count 95, 98. But true old fashion DOS ended at 6.22 [:(]

Triva: Orginal DOS 6.22 disk used a non-stardard format to stop piracy. You couldn't use the built in DISKCOPY for archival purposes.
Link Posted: 5/14/2002 12:11:25 PM EDT
Wait a sec! Maybe there really isnt an Area 51, NASA just started that rumor to cover up the fact that everyone there is an ebay addict.

Link Posted: 5/14/2002 12:53:26 PM EDT
Link Posted: 5/14/2002 1:09:13 PM EDT
The space shuttle is an enormus waste of money. They could launch stuff into orbit much cheaper with rockets. The whole idea of the space shuttle was that you could use it over and over again. Well when maintainence on a vehicle you can reuse costs more then a disposable vehicle, which makes more sense ?
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