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Architectural salvage appears to be answer for desperate NASA

News that NASA has been trawling the Internet in search of old computer parts to keep its ageing fleet of space shuttles operational must come as a bit of a shock to the generation that grew up thinking they were the be all and end all of advanced technology.

But computer development has been so swift that NASA, the quango that enabled America to win the 1960s space race, has fallen so far behind that its ageing fleet of space shuttles are going to have to keep on flying into their 40s and 50s - provided online auction houses such as Yahoo and eBay can unearth enough electronic bits from circa 1981, when the space shuttle's old-fashioned Intel 8086 microchips were hot stuff in the first generation of IBM PCs.

At the root of the problem is not so much the speed of technology, as the massive increase in aerospace complexity and cost. Inflation since the late 1970s and early 1980s when the four original shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis were built, has ensured that to design and build an improved, state-of-the-art fleet of new space shuttles would cost more than the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes put together.

If this story seems vaguely reminiscent of something nearer home, you are not mistaken.Although its two airline operators, as far as we know, have not sunk to the level of surfing the Internet for replacement electromagnetic instruments and Sinclair ZX80 era computers - Concorde faces the same fate. It too will be kept in service long after it should have been replaced by something bigger and better.Of course, the 33-year-old Concorde was earlier on the scene than the space shuttle, but thanks to the lengthy legal battles over its alleged noise pollution, not by very much.The first flight of Columbia took place in the spring of 1981, five years after the first commercial Concorde flight in 1976. The ageing pair also have one more thing in common on the debit side that should be mentioned; a total disaster that nearly had both grounded permanently.

In the case of Challenger, a failing neoprene gasket shortly after launch on 28 January 1986 cost the lives of the crew. In the case of Concorde, the loss of an Air France plane by fire on take-off from Paris on 25 July 2000 cost the lives of 113 passengers, crew and victims on the ground.

Following each of their disasters there were moves to abandon both these aircraft.

After Challenger, there was a movement in the US to quit manned space travel altogether, with many commentators and politicians contrasting the successes of NASA's unmanned probes with the lumbering, dangerous and prone-to-delay shuttle fleet.

In the case of Concorde, the Air France crash triggered a resumption of all the passionate environmentalist arguments against supersonic flight.

In the event, neither craft succumbed to this criticism and both remain in service to this day, but there is little doubt that the disasters and the continuing Green opposition played their real part in discouraging any further talk of an updated replacement like the long range 'Super Concorde', proposed as recently as 1990 by Aerospatiale and British Aerospace.Originally built for a 10-year lifespan, both civilian vessels were purchased without contractual provision for routine upgrades and improvements, a precaution that is normal for military aircraft, but both too, despite their futuristic nature have been left behind.

This is a fate more common in architecture - where every building is a prototype with no production run - than in aviation where 200 or 300 examples of an airliner would be normal. A far cry from 12 Concordes and four shuttles.

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