NASA makes shuttles from parts bought on eBay," says an e-mail I've just received. It's the fourth version of the same story I've received since yesterday, and it's getting better each time.
In the first version of the story (which had probably already long since left its grain-of-truth origins by the time I received it), NASA was buying obsolete computer parts at auction, because the computers in the space shuttle are so old they can no longer get new parts. And, one has to make the assumption, the Administration is so cash-strapped it can't afford to make new ones, either. Nor to upgrade, for that matter.
If you'll permit me a lateral jump here, in the 1970s Jimmy Connors used to rather enjoy the Wilson T-2000 tennis racquet - made the ball go like the clappers. But only the very best (like Connors) could control the ball with it at all. Wilson discontinued the racquet, but kept manufacturing a set number each year for the sole benefit of Jimmy Connors.
The point is that, if a manufacturer has a lucrative contract going, it will continue to build the products its big customers want. I cannot imagine that there is a computer hardware maker out there who would say, "we've got to stop making the NDC-140u boards now, because our only customer is that pesky Space Administration". NASA, I would wager, is an even bigger customer than Jimmy Connors.
But the eBay angle gives me particular pause. Without reading the story, just focusing on the headline, one immediately thinks, "hey, if NASA can build a shuttle with parts bought on eBay, maybe I can too".
Of course, that's assuming that NASA is obtaining actual shuttle parts on eBay. The headline might mean that NASA is assembling space shuttles out of eclectic pop-culture detritus. Images of spacecraft built entirely of Six Million Dollar Man action figures and Royal Wedding souvenir Pez dispensers leap to mind. At least Steve Austin was an astronaut, right?
A few weeks ago I commented on Dell's move to sell new computers directly through eBay - banking, so it seems, on people's preference to buy stuff from anonymous strangers rather than a company that will offer warranties. NASA isn't like that. NASA - post January 1986, at any rate - is rather more concerned with quality control and accountability.
So, if the thought of NASA's acquisitions people madly typing "bad seller :(((" in response to, say a failed launch costing several million dollars makes sense to you, then this e-mail ought to have a high degree of credibility. Maybe I'm just a cynic.
Matthew JC. Powell has a Six Million Dollar Man action figure in decent condition. Bids to firstname.lastname@example.org.