Past-To-Future: NASA’s Crawler-Transporters

NASA's crawler-transporters have been around since the Apollo era and are now being prepared for future missions. Photo Credit: Julian Leek/Blue Sawtooth Studios

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. 

Julian Leek has been covering the space program for some time. He is very familiar with the crawler-transporters - here is one of his images from Apollo 16. Photo Credit: Julian Leek/Blue Sawtooth Studios

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.

The iconic crawler-transporters are very long-lived. In some cases, this has caused some unique problems to crop up. The company that once produced the transporters' pads - no longer does so and NASA has to seek out replacement parts from somewhere else. Photo Credit: Julian Leek/Blue Sawtooth Studios.

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.

Recently, the crawler-transporters have carried the Mobile Launcher to and from Launch Complex-39A. Photo Credit: Julian Leek/Blue Sawtooth Studios

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.

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  1. In MY opinion, a HUGE debt of gratitude is owed to photographers like Julian Leek & many others who have DOCUMENTED these space vehicles for most of their lives….most often at their own expense & on their own time. THEY have left a loving & CREATIVE legacy in their photography which will live on after them to touch the hearts of future generations! THANK YOU ONE & ALL!!

  2. Very well stated Mary. This is indeed a marvelous legacy that will be enjoyed for countless generations to come. How many of us wish that there were more photographs of the Wright brothers, Lindberg, Yeager . . . It isn’t everyone who has the satisfaction of knowing that their life’s work has had meaning, and will live on long after them.

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