NASA's Historic Giant Crawler Gets a Tune Up for Modern Times (PICS)

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NASA's crawler 2 inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center (photo by Matthew Peddie)

(Listen to an audio version of the story here)

(Orlando -- WMFE) Retired space shuttles are being readied for museums, but there's one piece of equipment at the Kennedy Space Center that dates back to before the moon landing and it's not going anywhere. NASA's giant crawler transporter is the only machine with enough muscle to move Apollo rockets and space shuttles out to the launch pad, and after nearly 50 years on the job the agency's decided there's still no better way to transport heavy loads.

The Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket on the crawler (photo courtesy of NASA)

It’s about as wide as a six lane highway, higher than a two story building, with huge caterpillar treads at each of its four corners. With the mobile launch platform and a rocket or space shuttle on its back, the crawler en route for the launch pad was like a skyscraper rolling slowly down a highway.

Regular roads can’t handle the five and a half million pound weight of the crawler.

“If you drive on some of the roads out here where we’ve traversed it’s like riding a roller coaster, because we’ve done some damage to the roads with our weight, especially in the heat of the summer," says lead system engineer Russell Stoewe.

"We can tear up some asphalt" says lead engineer Russell Stoewe (photo by Matthew Peddie)

NASA has two crawler transporters.

Crawler two is being upgraded from its current lifting capacity of 12 million pounds -- the combined weight of the shuttle and mobile launcher -- to 18 million pounds, for NASA's new heavy lift rocket.

Mechanic Wilson Williams, who's worked at the space center since 1968 -- nearly as long as the crawler itself --  says it's the biggest project he's ever worked on. "It’s a challenge. A lot of new things, new engines, new exhausts, new brakes, new hydraulics, new computers."

Getting inside the crawler is like boarding a battleship -- up a ladder, along a walkway and through a low doorway. There are four big diesel engines inside, similar to what you might find on an old Naval ship.

The two engines supplying onboard power are being replaced, but the engines powering the generators which drive the caterpillar tracks are staying put. "We baby them," says Russell Stoewe. He says the manufacturers have looked inside the engines and say they're in pristine condition.

One of the original locomotive power engines (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The crawler re-fit is part of a $2 billion plan to modernize the Kennedy Space Center, and as NASA moves to partner with commercial rocket companies it aims to make the center as versatile as possible.

The crawlers are listed on a national historic register, but Frank DiBello, the CEO of the economic development agency Space Florida, says it makes sense to keep them going. “We build bridges for far longer than that," says DiBello.

"There is nothing inherent in the basic crawler transporter system that can’t be revitalized over time,” he says.

In fact, about seven years ago, NASA was considering whether to trade the crawler in for something new. Russell Stoewe says the agency looked at rubber-tired vehicles but rejected the idea, partly because of storms that hit the cape.

Image courtesy of NASA

“If lightning hits the vehicle would we have to inspect, I don’t know how many tires they had, some of them had 80 tires, some of them had 500 tires," says Stoewe.

"There’s a significant amount of labor that goes into that. All of these things were unknowns that added an unknown cost to an already high cost.”

In 1965 NASA spent $14 million to build the transporters. That’s more than $100 million in today’s dollars. Stoewe says it would cost even more now because the U.S. is no longer the industrial powerhouse it was in the 1960s.

While the crawlers are indispensible to NASA, they’ve also made their mark on popular culture, appearing in movies like Apollo 13 and Transformers 3.

Stoewe says the current transformation project won’t improve its speed or gas mileage at all: one mile an hour and 32 feet to the gallon.

But after the work’s complete in 2014, the upgrade will allow this crawler to roll out a new generation of space craft.

(Listen to an audio version of the story at WMFE)

We've got lots more NASA coverage here, and of course Mars rover pics and videos.