Does the U.S. still manufacture technologies for its space program that would otherwise be obsolete?

Are there technologies (materials, components, systems, or software) that continue to be manufactured in the United States for space applications, even though they would otherwise be considered obsolete?

To clarify the question:

1. The technology must at some point in history have had some non-space purpose. Yes, there are lots of things custom-built just for NASA, but that's not what this question is about. Military aircraft would qualify as a non-space application.

2. All non-space applications should be discontinued. That's what makes the technology "obsolete".

3. The technology continued to be purchased for the space program despite its obsolescence in other applications.

4. Because the U.S. space program is in transition, examples from the shuttle era are acceptable, if they were already obsolete at the time they were used in the shuttle program. However, modern examples are preferred.

5. "Space program" primarily refers to NASA, but DoD and private programs (e.g. SpaceX, Bigelow) would also be relevant to this question.

This question is similar to my previous question, "Does Russia still manufacture parts for their space program that would otherwise be obsolete?", except applied to the U.S. program. Answers will therefore not be the same for both questions.

update: The question is not intended to be limited to computer technology. For example, one answer to the Russian version of the question was a change in fuel injectors.

• A good portion of semiconductor industry is maintained only space missions. Certifying new parts is very expensive, so is certifying a new design that uses them. Aug 7, 2018 at 10:23
• @user3528438: I'm not sure if any non-space products still use the RCA 1802 COSMAC processor, but it has been used in Hubble, Magellan, and Galileo. The RAD series of processors is essentially only for space applications, and related processors in its architecture (POWER) are surprisingly still being designed and made for other applications, so it wouldn't fit the criteria. Aug 7, 2018 at 15:42
• Easy way to find a few instances of those is, find the civilian/commercial/industrial/automotive equivalent of rad-hardened/space-certified/hi-rel products and see if those non-space equivalents are obsolete. If all of them are, then you have a hit. Aug 7, 2018 at 17:19

2 Answers

NASA still uses old equipment that would otherwise be considered obsolete. However, I am not sure what equipment they order that is still manufactured for them beyond old processors and computer operating systems and languages.

One area NASA continues to use old equipment is research aircraft. As an example, NASA still flies the English Electric Canberra, a British first-generation jet-powered medium bomber that was manufactured during the 1950s.

Nasa’s Canberras are a part of the agency’s Airborne Science Program (ASP), explains Charles Mallini, who is the program manager for Nasa’s Canberra fleet. “The ASP is responsible for providing aircraft systems that further science and advance the use of satellite data,” he says.

NASA uses a 747SP as a platform for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The 747SP went out of production in 1989 and has been in service with NASA since 2010.

Some of the other obsolete aircraft run by NASA includes a Douglas DC-8, a Douglas DC-9 Skytrain II, at least one Northrop T-38 used for flight training, a McDonnell Douglas F-15, a U-2, a Lockheed P–3 Orion, a Lockheed C-121 Starliner, Boeing 757 and a Aero Spacelines Super Guppy. In the past, NASA even used the Tupolev Tu-144 for supersonic research projects in the 1990s. The Tu-144 retired from commercial service after only 55 flights in 1979. The aircraft only had 38 hours of flight time.

Sometimes old works just fine.

Alternatively, some things invented in association with NASA are still going strong today. This includes digital cameras, non-scratch lenses, LEDs, improved water purification, food quality standards, freeze-drying, joysticks, jaws of life, wireless headphones, baby formula, the super soaker, the cordless vacuum, memory foam, portable computers, artificial limbs, the computer mouse, road grooving and many others.

• Those aircraft were manufactured decades ago, so aren't an answer to the question which was about what is manufactured today.
– djr
Oct 6, 2018 at 12:26
• @djr Every single one of those planes, much like an old computer system or a satellite downlink station needs parts. Light bulbs, fuel caps, fluids and other parts. Even though they may look similar, I doubt there is much commonality between the 747SP and the 747-8, so every part has to be sourced somewhere. I am not sure how many are currently manufactured, scavenged or comes from stores. Oct 8, 2018 at 16:42

One example that comes to mind would be the Fortran programming language which is still being used on the Voyager program. Originally written in Fortran5, the code's been ported over to Fortran77 with a smattering of C as well, more details about that in this question from Programming.SE.

Of course, obsolete is a matter of opinion, there are still applications written in Cobol, Algol, and Fortran which haven't been replaced because they function adequately and would be too expensive to re-write. Are they obsolete? The computing hardware in space probes is often very outdated before it's even launched, my phone has more processing power, however they're chosen proven and reliable technologies.

• FORTRAN is incredibly fast, easier to understand than C++, and is thus still widely used by physicists. I would hardly consider it to be an obsolete language. moreisdifferent.com/2015/07/16/why-physicsts-still-use-fortran Aug 6, 2018 at 17:21
• This is my point about obsolete being a matter of opinion @JustinBraun. Fortran isn't taught much anymore and it is not widely used because it lacks object orientation, but still has a niche.
– GdD
Aug 6, 2018 at 19:57
• The main simulation models in the Shuttle Mission Simulator were in Fortran and continued to be used until program cancellation in 2011. Aug 6, 2018 at 22:34
• +1 for the link. You can't even install SciPy or many other technical packages for Python without a healthy FORTRAN compiler. While one might not set out in 2018 to write a new game or a website or a phone app in FORTRAN, it's still used, visible or nor.
– uhoh
Aug 7, 2018 at 1:06
• @DavidThornley: The comment you are referring to is now written as its own question: space.stackexchange.com/q/31132/26446 Oct 5, 2018 at 20:48