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A Space Junkyard

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Second-hand Space Parts may take us Back to the Moon

Norton Sales, a salvage yard and spare-parts shop on a rough industrial strip in North Hollywood, California, looks like the kind of place you'd go on a weekend afternoon to find a replacement item for your Harley. But it's also the kind of junkyard where you can find a spare master panel from Houston Mission Control, a shelf full of valves from a Saturn rocket, or a fuel tank for liquid oxygen.

All this space detritus ended up here courtesy of a federal rule that required government contractors to return all their built hardware - or sell it for scrap. So Norton Sales made discarded space gear the centerpiece of its business. Their customers used to be mostly souvenir hunters and set decorators for science-fiction movies. But now, rocket scientists and engineers are calling, looking for pieces of the intricate rocket plumbing that haven't been made in four decades.

Saturn V Motor Credit: Wired/PBS

These were the kind of parts that went into the mighty Saturn Five rockets that took men to the moon from the 1960s to the early 1970s. Now, as the United States gears up for a new set of missions to the moon and beyond, NASA is discovering that it has forgotten much about how those original rockets were built. Many of the engineers and contractors who developed the incredible number of pieces of machinery that went into those rockets aren't around anymore. And in many cases, the companies they worked for have changed hands or gone out of business, taking their blueprints and records with them.

NASA engineers and technicians are now busily digging up old rocket parts, cleaning them up and reverse-engineering them to figure out how they worked. So the path back to the moon might just go through Norton Sales' salvage yard.


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