NASA scavenges on eBay for old parts for Space Shuttle
May 12, 2002 7:31 AM   Subscribe

NASA scavenges on eBay for old parts for Space Shuttle [NYT link-reg req] The Space Shuttle is so old that many of the parts for it are no longer being made. NASA has been reduced to buying old equipment on eBay to scavenge for circuit boards and old CPUs.
posted by geneablogy (10 comments total)
hhmmm... how's their feedback?
posted by matteo at 8:00 AM on May 12, 2002

I read (and it could have been complete spin on their part) that NASA tried to stay a few generations behind in mass-marketed technology to ensure stuff they used didn't have a history of failure.

Then again, I think 8086 has a little too much history at this point.
posted by yerfatma at 8:03 AM on May 12, 2002

FYI - Despite its caption, the picture does not show 8086's. The chips shown are much more complex and recent. 8086's have only 40 pins and look like this.
posted by NortonDC at 9:17 AM on May 12, 2002

yerfatma, that's essentially true, though not for the reasons you state. Put it the opposite way: they refused to use unproven "latest and greatest" technology to support mission-critical functions. In terms of chips and circuit boards, the process of space-rating hardware is expensive and lengthy. It includes radiation bombardment and iterative error-checking, among other things; then you have to get the proper licensing and out-sourcing contracts, and we all know how popular that is in the chip business. Proven "last-generation" hardware is more accurately their only option.

Of course space-rating isn't the issue here, but it speaks to the question of using "old" technology.

As for 8086s, they are only going to use 8086s. They're not going emulate it in an 80x86 or Pentium anything, because the software was written for the 8086 and is rock-solid on that hardware. There are far too many ways in which emulation could go wrong to substitute something else, even if it works fine for desktop applications. Also, there is absolutely no benefit from putting it into a box with more memory and faster processor -- it's already as fast as it needs to be.
posted by dhartung at 9:51 AM on May 12, 2002

For those interested enough to have read this far:

They Write the Right Stuff
This software never crashes. It never needs to be re-booted. This software is bug-free. It is perfect, as perfect as human beings have achieved. Consider these stats: the last three versions of the program -- each 420,000 lines long-had just one error each. The last 11 versions of this software had a total of 17 errors. Commercial programs of equivalent complexity would have 5,000 errors.

Admittedly they have a lot of advantages over the rest of the software world. They have a single product: one program that flies one spaceship. They understand their software intimately, and they get more familiar with it all the time. The group has one customer, a smart one. And money is not the critical constraint: the groups $35 million per year budget is a trivial slice of the NASA pie, but on a dollars-per-line basis, it makes the group among the nation's most expensive software organizations.
It's an interesting article, but ultimately I'm unconvinced by it's assertion that this mode of programming should be the model for all software development.
posted by NortonDC at 10:33 AM on May 12, 2002

"reduced to"?
posted by techgnollogic at 12:04 PM on May 12, 2002

Huh... scavenging for parts on eBay.

I would have expected HMO's to be practicing this long before NASA.
posted by willconsult4food at 7:28 PM on May 12, 2002

I'm saving this article to show to my wife the next time she asks me when I'm going to throw out "all that old computer junk" that's in the garage.

Also, I seem to recall that the Hubble telescope ran on a 386 until right around the end of '99.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:46 PM on May 12, 2002

Geez. And they said "bulk"... I'm not quite to "bulk" status yet. My collection here basically fits "small mass" category...
posted by Samizdata at 11:34 PM on May 12, 2002

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."

Is this true? Are design engineers making in the neighborhood of $30,000/year?
posted by goto11 at 8:47 AM on May 13, 2002

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