We sent veteran aerospace photojournalist Julian Leek to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on a tour of one of the massive crawler-transporters that have been used by the space agency to deliver launch vehicles to Launch Complex 39 since the Apollo era.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – They move across the landscape at the staggering speed of one mile an hour. They have to – the cargo they carry is delicate and precious. They are NASA’s monstrous crawler-transporters.
Since the time when the U.S. sent astronauts to the Moon, these ponderous vehicles have carried their own payloads out to Launch Complex 39. These iconic vehicles are now undergoing renovations to prepare them to once again send humans beyond the confines of their homeworld. The fact that these mammoths have been in service so long – is causing some issues during their refurbishment.
Some companies that manufactured parts for the crawler-transporters no longer exist making the task of preparing them for future missions more challenging. The transporter’s massive treads are one of the vehicle’s elements that are currently experiencing these issues.
The crawler-transporters are being renovated so that one of them can be used to deliver different spacecraft and launch vehicles to the launch pad – the other is being dedicated for use on NASA’s Space Launch System or SLS. This massive launch vehicle is designed to power U.S. astronauts to points beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) for the first time in over four decades.
The transporters were utilized for thirty years to deliver the space shuttles to Launch Complex-39 (LC-39). With the announcement of the Constellation Program, a new structure, the Mobile Launcher Platform or MLP was constructed to be carried atop the transporters. This strucure would be used to carry the Ares family of rockets to the launch pad. With the scrapping of Constellation – the fate of the MLP as well as the crawler-transporters was placed in doubt.
NASA was then directed to empower the fledgling private space industry and new ideas on how these massive machines could be used in this new era were developed. While one transporter would still be tasked with carrying NASA’s next generation of spacecraft – the other would be made for flexible so as to be used for the wide range of commercial rockets that are being proposed.
The space agency has started putting the MLP through its paces – taking the 355-foot-tall structure out to LC9A and then back to the MLP’s usual haunt by the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Engineers were checking to see if the rolling skyscraper is structurally sound (no severe anomalies have been detected). These voyages of the lumbering behemoth and its tall payload harken back to the days of Apollo.
It is hoped that, with NASA’s fleet of space shuttles retired, the space agency can hand off the responsibility of ferrying crew and cargo to LEO to emering commercial space companies – leaving NASA to send astronauts beyond LEO once again.
NASA has learned to make do with what resources that it has on hand. The space agency has repeatedly seen its budget cut and initiatives that it has been directed to undertake improperly funded (NASA receives about one-seventh of a penny out of every tax dollar). How NASA has employed the crawler-transporters throughout the decades highlights an organization that has learned to adapt what resources to accomplish the mission placed before it.