Catching a Ride to Destiny
The sight of the Astrovan's shiny silver exterior and bold NASA emblem evokes pride and excitement in those who watch it wind its way toward the launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Before each space shuttle launch, astronauts smile and wave as they board the van that will carry them to meet their fully fueled ride to space.
Since 1984, each shuttle crew has travelled those nine miles, from their crew quarters to the launch pad, aboard the same vehicle. A modified Airstream motor home, the "Astrovan" as it is called has only racked up 24,000 miles in its 24 years of service. That's because it's used solely to transport the astronauts on three occasions: to the launch pad for launch dress rehearsal, on launch day and after landing.
The earlier shuttle flights had fewer crew members, so they used the Apollo-era astronaut transport van that now can be seen by tourists at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex's Apollo/Saturn V Center.
The current vehicle's appeal is rooted in its tradition rather than its décor. The interior's narrow-center aisle is paralleled by long benches that sport dark-blue upholstery. The seats are equipped with lift-out sections to accommodate the ventilator units used to circulate cool air through the astronauts' bulky orange launch and entry suits. Dark-gold drapes frame the windows and dark-wood paneling lines the walls.
According to Astrovan driver Ronnie King, the astronauts like the history-filled, if somewhat dated, vehicle just fine.
"We were staged to get a new one," says the 10-year veteran driver. But, according to King, word came that the rookie astronauts wanted to keep the vehicle that was steeped in the tradition of the astronauts who traveled those nine miles to the pad before them.
Employed by space shuttle contractor United Space Alliance, King is one of five drivers called upon to pilot the Astrovan. On launch day, the vehicle is the centerpiece of a motorcade escorted by security toward the seaside launch pad, and is in constant communication with the NASA test director via radio.
When it comes to launch day "they have their game faces on," King says of the crew members. "This is serious business."
As the remaining shuttle flights are flown, each successive crew of astronauts will make its way to the same shining silver van, prepared to write the next page of space history.
Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center