Space race: The search for 25-year-old spare parts

A techie's task of finding parts for legacy equipment brings an unexpected connection

I worked in the IT department of a large integrated steel mill for many years. We had 6,000 employees spread out over 800 acres of property.

The department I worked in specialized in hardware -- everything from mice to mainframes. Our job was to evaluate, purchase, maintain, and eventually dispose of all computer systems used in the plant.

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Our technology grew and improved over the years, following the emerging technologies of the computing world. In general, technology in the industry kept pace with the latest trends, especially in server rooms. That said, business managers at our company liked to get the most for their investment dollar and, if they could, would run equipment until it was either unsupported or too slow for the application.

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Unfortunately, legacy equipment was a thorn in our side, as we tried to maintain systems long past their life expectancy. Usually the equipment was designed for a specific system and either the software was no longer supported by the vendor or it would be too costly rip out and replace the old system. One of these legacies was our Rometer system (an optical flatness gauge used in rolling mill process control) used in our hot roll mill.

The original computer system controlling the Rometer was a PDP-11 built by Digital Equipment Corp., introduced around 1970. Ours was installed around 1980.

Fast-forward to 2005, and the system was still in use -- more than 25 years after it was put into service. Components had been changed over the years (power supplies, memory boards, and so on), but it was still a serviceable system, doing what it was designed for.

The problem became finding parts for a 25-year-old computer system that had been relegated to museum status years ago.

Tasked with trying to find serviceable spare parts, I turned to the Internet and ended up searching at an online auction site. To my great surprise, there was another bidder trying to buy the same parts. I was able to contact the other bidder, and we started communicating.

It turned out that this bidder was from NASA. I was taken aback. NASA? I wondered. What in the world could they want these parts for? It turns out it was for something out of this world.

The tone of the bidder's communication seemed authentic and knowledgeable. They required the parts to maintain their systems, which still communicated with the Voyager and Pioneer spacecrafts -- the most distant man-made objects in the solar system. Who would have imagined that even NASA would have legacy equipment issues?

We both enjoyed finding someone to converse with about this old technology, and we corresponded back and forth a few times. Ultimately, the other bidder had deeper pockets and won the auction, and I was able to find the parts from a supplier who specialized in refurbished equipment.

I've always been fascinated with space, but never imagined that my job would take such an unexpected turn: firsthand knowledge of a technology used both on earth and to the farthest reaches of the heavens.

This story, "Space race: The search for 25-year-old spare parts," was originally published at Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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