Shuttle program seeks computer parts on eBay

The company that oversees the day-to-day operations of the space shuttle uses auctions on eBay as a tipsheet for finding available computer parts. But it doesn’t actually compete in auctions to capture hardware for the shuttle program.

And the components that the Houston-based United Space Alliance buys are never used on the shuttle itself, said Kari Fluegel, a spokeswoman for the Houston-based company, which is a joint venture between The Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

“This is not flight hardware,” Fluegel said. “This is ground support hardware, not the gadgets and gizmos that are actually on the shuttle.”

The United Space Alliance has been inundated with parts offers from companies looking to get rid old computer components since a New York Times story ran yesterday saying that the company regularly trolls eBay and Yahoo auctions looking for parts, Fluegel said.

She declined to give out contact information for people with components to call and noted that the company isn’t interested in buying just one or two parts from someone with an old computer at home — it wants parts in bulk.

“Think of it more as a supply chain preservation instead of a gizmo here or a gizmo there,” Fluegel said.

Engineers at the United Space Alliance must consider the long-term needs of the shuttle program, which began in the late 1970s and had its first launch in 1981. That includes tracking down sources for parts that are no longer being manufactured, a search that sometimes leads to online auctions at eBay and Yahoo, where engineers seek the names of companies that deal in old components.

Once sources are found, the firm’s contracting and supply officials make sure the company is reputable and that its components are what it needs. If the company makes the cut, the the United Space Alliance then buys the parts off-line — not through an Internet auction site.

“The main thing that I would like to make clear is that we are not purchasing equipment over the Internet,” Fluegel said.

The need for parts will probably continue for some time. Each of the shuttle’s airframes was designed for 100 missions. Since most of the current crop of shuttles have only gone into space about 25 times, NASA anticipates that the fleet will keep flying until 2020.

In addition, no replacement vehicle for the shuttle is in sight.

“It is an amazing vehicle,” Fluegel said. “Even with some of the equipment being older, the things we can do with that orbiter and with the older equipment underscore what a true engineering marvel that vehicle is.”

The shuttles have undergone continual repairs and overhauls as budgets have allowed, and some of the fleet have had their cockpits entirely rebuilt with modern avionic equipment. “The shuttle is still on the cutting edge,” Fluegel said.