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Zombie shuttle parts are powering a Phantom Boeing spacecraft

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Feb 22, 2019, 3:17 PM EST

If you’ve ever seen one of the three retired Space Shuttles up close and personal, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the past and possibility of the machine before you. But you probably didn’t realize then that it was already gutted for spare parts.

Of course, it just makes sense to strip the retired-since-2011 spacecraft of all its hi-tech componentry — why let it go to waste, after all. Perhaps that’s what Boeing's been thinking by reusing “zombie components,” as Wired calls them, to power up some of their future space fliers. Or perhaps it just makes financial sense to keep the parts in play, as the U.S. government’s preferred contractor and the holder of the designs and specifications for the Shuttle’s engines and other parts?

Either way, Boeing has plans to use modified Shuttle engines to power NASA's delayed and over-budget Space Launch System (SLS), a launch vehicle with its proverbial space eyes set on the Moon and Mars. A zombie engine is also slated for the Phantom Express, a crewless DARPA spaceplane intended for quick, (relatively) inexpensive trips to and from space. 

But wait, there’s more space zombies being prepped for a return trip. According to the $818,000 Space Act Agreement signed by Boeing last September, the company hopes to use some of the Shuttle’s R40b orbital maneuvering engines (which helped make it possible to deploy the Hubble Telescope) in a secret Department of Defense project. NASA will pick eight engines currently sleeping at its White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, clean, inspect, and test them, then pick the best four and hand “them over to Boeing for ‘return to service’ in an unnamed DoD program,” according to Wired

We don’t know whether or not these smaller engines will be used for the Phantom Express or for other uses, perhaps launching large military satellites into geostationary orbit. But one thing’s for certain, we are particularly interested in the future of zombie space engines now.