Space: Antiques in Orbit


June 21, 2007: Recent computer problems in the International Space Station (ISS) generally ignored the fact that some of the computers used up there are, technically, antiques (over 25 years old). The U.S. Space Shuttle, for example, uses a special (hardened against radiation) Intel 386 processor. That item was new twenty years ago. The Russians are using computers developed for their old Mir space station, and adapted for use in the ISS.

There is some more recent computer equipment in the shuttle and the ISS, but this stuff still has to work the older gear. The problem is that, for major technology projects like the shuttle or the ISS, design details have to be "frozen" for a long time, so other components can be completed, and made to work with the frozen items. You can upgrade stuff like this, but that costs money. Many upgrades are not seen as important enough to spend scarce resources on. After all, if the elderly computers are doing the job, why bother with them? As more modern computers are installed, usually as part of some new scientific experiment, or a new piece of equipment, it it gets more difficult to get the new computers to work with the oldest ones. There are speed and hardware compatibility issues. Getting replacement parts for the old gear is difficult as well, because many of the components have not been made for over a decade. Fortunately, there is eBay, which has provided a means to obtain ancient parts for ancient computers. Sometimes you have to scrounge up some ancient geeks who know how to repair stuff built using techniques that are now obsolete. Eventually, it all becomes too much of a hassle, and large sums of money have to be spent on new components. Or, as is the case with the Space Shuttle, you retire the system, and its increasingly troublesome ancient computers.


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