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NASA Space Transportation Science

NASA's Giant Crawler-Transporter Is Getting an Upgrade 135

Posted by Soulskill
from the new-paint-job-and-millions-of-pounds-of-carrying-capacity dept.
An anonymous reader sends this excerpt from Transportation Nation: "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. 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. ... 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."
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NASA's Giant Crawler-Transporter Is Getting an Upgrade

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  • by Yvanhoe (564877) on Friday September 07, 2012 @11:05AM (#41260261) Journal
    ... but why don't they build the rocket on the take-off location and remove the building instead? It seems like a smaller effort, no?
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I suspect they like they prefer to build rockets indoors (controlled environment, etc) and launch them outdoors (slight fire hazard, etc).

      • by Lumpy (12016)

        Then NASA needs to switch to Diet Coke and mentos for the initial boost rockets...

    • by Ogive17 (691899) on Friday September 07, 2012 @11:10AM (#41260321)
      Would you want a "temporary building" housing a billion dollar investment in an area prone to hurricanes?
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Would you want a "temporary building" housing a billion dollar investment in an area prone to hurricanes?

        I bought a 50-foot by 50-foot tarp to cover my roof while I was doing some work--it cost about $150. Now could you imagine how much it would cost to cover the rocket while it's under construction? And you all know what happens to tarps when the wind picks up. I'd hate to be the team trying to lash it down during a Florida wind storm. Much cheaper to just move it into place on a giant tractor thingy.

    • by Jeng (926980)

      Because they build more than one at a time.

    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Friday September 07, 2012 @11:12AM (#41260371) Homepage

      ... but why don't they build the rocket on the take-off location and remove the building instead? It seems like a smaller effort, no?

      Go look at pictures of the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building - no, you find the links). The largest indoor space in the world. So you'd like to immolate it every time you launched a rocket? Sounds even more expensive than the crawler transporter.

      Just as a point of argument, there ARE other ways to do this sort of thing. The Russians like to put things together on the ground and then lift the entire mess up. I'm sure there were spirited discussions on the pros and cons of doing this in the 60's but this way certainly has been quite flexible.

      Sigh. This is part of my childhood - grew up around the thing. Nice to see that it's still there though.

      • by firex726 (1188453) <firex726.yahoo@com> on Friday September 07, 2012 @11:52AM (#41260889)

        Wiki disagrees with you. It's ONE of the largest, it's not THE largest.

        It's #6 on the list: Largest usable space

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_buildings_in_the_world [wikipedia.org]

        • I'd like to thank all the Slashdot pedants for clarifying one small point of fact on my post. Where would we be without you guys?

          No, really. Thanks. The world is a better place.

          • by firex726 (1188453)

            Yea, who needs accurate information for claims that you specially refused to back up.
            Maybe if you were not so abrasive people would not go out of their way to look-up your stuff.

      • by TubeSteak (669689) on Friday September 07, 2012 @11:54AM (#41260941) Journal

        Just as a point of argument, there ARE other ways to do this sort of thing. The Russians like to put things together on the ground and then lift the entire mess up. I'm sure there were spirited discussions on the pros and cons of doing this in the 60's but this way certainly has been quite flexible.

        The Russians like to move their rockets by rail.
        http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2011/04/02/article-1372645-0B724A6200000578-45_634x286.jpg [dailymail.co.uk]
        It's a much simpler and faster process than the mega crawler NASA went went.

        • by cusco (717999) <<brian.bixby> <at> <gmail.com>> on Friday September 07, 2012 @05:57PM (#41267621)
          Has to do with the way the Soviet and the US/German design teams came at an issue. The Soviets (Korolev especially) wanted to be able to access and inspect everything up to the very last, thus the horizontal assembly. They were on an extremely tight budget and couldn't afford launch failures. The Americans assumed that the contractors and assembly teams would check everything, so just stacking the components vertically the way they had done it since the V-2 seemed logical. They had a much more expansive budget and a failure rate of 20 percent was seen as acceptable (at least by the contractors) until people started climbing aboard.
      • by plover (150551) *

        He didn't say they should create a disposable building. He suggested they could build a movable building, like a retractable dome.

        It's not the greatest idea, though. They'd be limited to assembling one vehicle at a time on each pad. With the existing VAB and crawler to move the vehicles, they can theoretically assemble several in advance, and store them.

      • by strack (1051390)
        they really should do it they way spacex does it, which is roll out the empty rocket to the launch pad horizontal. turn it vertical, fill it up with fuel and o2, and launch.
    • by Mercano (826132)

      Mostly because they want to reuse as much of the existing infrastructure at KSC as they can, and it was built around the idea of static buildings & launch pads with mobile launch platforms. When they were building a west coast shuttle launching facility in the 80's, they were reusing SLC-6, a Titan III facility built around having a mobile service tower, so they wound up building a mobile assembly building. [aviationintel.com]

      Wait, west coast shuttle facilities, you ask? Yup, they were planing on launching Discovery fro

    • by Catmeat (20653) <mtm.sys@uea@ac@uk> on Friday September 07, 2012 @01:34PM (#41262641)
      ... but why don't they build the rocket on the take-off location and remove the building instead? It seems like a smaller effort, no?

      This is exactly what's done in some circumstances. During the 80's, there were plans to launch shuttles from Vandernberg AFB in California. The West-Coast launch site was known as SLC-6 [wikipedia.org] and, if it had ever been used, would have worked in exactly this way. The downside is that the launch site is tied up for many months at a time. I believe SLC-6 was intended to handle around one launch per year.

      When the plans for Kennedy were laid out in the early 60's, the method of getting to the moon was still being decided. Early on, the leading option was Earth orbit rendezvous, which would have required two Saturn 5 launches per mission, with the rockets launched within hours of each other. Having a central assembly building with a capacity for several Saturn 5s [1] and three separate launch sites (although only two were actually built) was seen as the best way of doing this. Everything there now is a legacy of this, early-60's planning.

      However ESA in Kourou and the Russians in Baikonur do the same thing - separating assembly and launch sites. The hassle of having to move rockets about on the ground is more than made up for the fact that your launch rate isn't bottle-necked by the number of launch pads. And remember, the number of launch pads is always going to be limited as they have to be separated by many miles of empty land for safety reasons. Even on the Central Asian steppes, you'd only have space for so many.

      [1] I believe it could potentially accommodate four at various stages of assembly but don't quote me, I'm likely misremembering the exact number.

      • by demachina (71715)

        My personal theory is that launching the Shuttle from SLC-6 was a wacko Reagan-esque first strike weapon aimed at the Soviet Union, which only someone as wacko as Reagan and his friends would dream up.

        Basically you permanently park a Shuttle in the SLC-6 hanger with a payload bay full of nuclear bombs attached to small solid rocket motors. The day you decide to launch a first strike, you launch the Shuttle from Vandenburg in to a polar orbit in the vacinity of Moscow and Russia's command and control center

        • by sconeu (64226)

          Put away your tinfoil hat. Vandenberg would have been used for polar orbit launches. In the same way that Canaveral is almost perfect for equatorial launches, Vandenberg is great for polar orbit. Launch southward, and you're over ocean until you've reached orbit.

          • by demachina (71715)

            There was never a strong case for using the shuttle to launch DOD satellites and everyone knows it. If it had been cheap and launched frequently as originally promised maybe. But by the time it first flew it was obvious it was going to be extravegently over priced to fly and difficult to refurbish between flights so it would never have a good launch rate. As much trouble as it had out of the box with water droplet damage it would have been horrible to launch it out of fog bound Vandenburgh.

            If they only di

    • by k6mfw (1182893)
      Reason why VAB was built and Pad 39A and 39B three miles away and using the crawler transporter was based on Saturn V rocket and its assembly and launch complex, all had to be ready in less than a decade. If they had to do it all over again with Space Shuttle, it would be done differently. But wait, it was! At least for Vandenberg AFB which was another Shuttle launch facility on west coast for polar orbits, see these pics at http://www.murdoconline.net/archives/3981.html [murdoconline.net] and you can see overall was done ver
    • by trout007 (975317)

      Some rockets are launched this way. The Delta IV is built on a launch pad and the entire building rolls out of the way for launch.

      The old Titan IV was similar.

      Also during Apollo there was a temporary access structure that was as big as the rocket called the Mobile Service Structure that was moved around with the crawlers.

      http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.savethelut.org/photos/Apollo%252011%2520LUT%2520and%2520SS.jpg&imgrefurl=http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/LUT_Group/links/LUT_Photo_Scan [google.com]

  • For what? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tekrat (242117) on Friday September 07, 2012 @11:08AM (#41260291) Homepage Journal

    If NASA thinks they are going to have a heavy-lift rocket, or even a manned space program, ever again, they obviously have not been reading the newspapers. For the next decade at least, they aren't going to do anything beyond a few GPS and communications satellites. And Elon Musk is going to grab most of that business. Joyrides are being handled by two other companies and the Russians are providing the lifts to the ISS, until that too, is deorbited for lack of funds.

    Short of a "Pearl Harbor" style incident that forces us back into space in a big way (say, the Chinese land on the moon, or a chunk of falling rock wipes out LA), the government is as committed to NASA as the average Slashdotter is committed to becoming the Pope.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      You insensitive clod! I'm a priest, the kind that doesn't piddle little boys, and I aspire to be Pope one day!

    • by Leuf (918654)
      Even if it's another entity besides NASA that builds a heavy lift rocket, they are going to need somewhere to launch it from.
      • by 0123456 (636235)

        Even if it's another entity besides NASA that builds a heavy lift rocket, they are going to need somewhere to launch it from.

        NASA are the only entity likely to build a heavy lift rocket in the near future because it makes no financial sense. And even if SpaceX did build one, they'd be unlikely to pay for NASA infrastructure to launch it.

        • by Cytotoxic (245301)

          Even if it's another entity besides NASA that builds a heavy lift rocket, they are going to need somewhere to launch it from.

          NASA are the only entity likely to build a heavy lift rocket in the near future because it makes no financial sense. And even if SpaceX did build one, they'd be unlikely to pay for NASA infrastructure to launch it.

          How heavy is "heavy lift"? SpaceX has the Falcon Heavy [spacex.com] on the roadmap. Supposed to lift over double the capacity of the Shuttle. Will launch from the Cape on a Nasa pad. According to their website, only the Saturn V delivered more mass to orbit. According to my recollection a couple of Soviet rockets were bigger too.

          It looks like the Alliant/Boeing SLS could do double the work of the Falcon Heavy, if it ever gets built. Projected costs for SLS are even more massive than its payload - at least when com

          • by 0123456 (636235)

            How heavy is "heavy lift"? SpaceX has the Falcon Heavy [spacex.com] on the roadmap. Supposed to lift over double the capacity of the Shuttle.

            Considering the shuttle launched something like a quarter as much as the Saturn V, launching twice as much isn't really saying a lot.

            But it also avoids the biggest problem of the SLS: you spend billions and billions and billions of dollars developing something that flies perhaps a dozen times over the next decade, so every single launch starts with a base cost of a billion dollars or more when you spread the development costs over a tiny number of launches. The Falcon Heavy would be based on the Falcon 9, s

          • by morgauxo (974071)
            I'd say the bar on heavy lift is Apollo. Why? Because only Apollo ever took a human being to another world. If it can be done with less then I will call that heavy lift just as soon as somebody proves it by doing it. Until then all this news about suborbital and orbital flight is getting boring.
        • by demachina (71715)

          NASA, Boeing and Lockheed are unlikely to ever build a new launcher especially one with a price tag running to $40 billion dollars. They have completely lost the engineering capacity, the fire in the belly and the desire. Their funding source, the U.S. Congress and President, is so politicized, gridlocked and partisan they will never sustain the funding over the extended period it takes to complete anything of substance and difficulty.

          They will do exactly what they've done on every new launcher for the la

          • by plover (150551) *

            NASA, Boeing and Lockheed are unlikely to ever build a new launcher especially one with a price tag running to $40 billion dollars. They have completely lost the engineering capacity, the fire in the belly and the desire.

            For the Biggest Science projects, NASA only does what they're told - the politicians have to say "send a colony to Mars", it's not a choice that NASA makes on their own. And Lockheed and Boeing are contractors. They don't choose what NASA does, either. Remember, NASA didn't stand in front of America and say "we will send a man to the moon by the end of the decade; not because it is easy, but because it is hard." That was Kennedy.

            I don't think they've lost the engineering capabilities. But what they have

            • by demachina (71715)

              "NASA only does what they're told"

              That is why SpaceX succeeds and NASA fails. SpaceX is setting their own strategic direction and its engineering and vision driven. They have to fight to piece together funding but when develop great launchers with a killer price point the money flows to them and they aren't totally dependent on polticially motivated funding, though their NASA contracts are huge to them.

              "I don't think they've lost the engineering capabilities"

              How do you think they would still have the engi

    • GPS is funded by the DoD. NASA does not do comsats. NASA is not the DoD, nor the NRO, nor NOAA. What does NASA do? Probes, ISS, Hubble, etc.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Can't help but wonder since it moves so slow, but still, how far would it freeroll if you didn't have brakes?

    • by tekrat (242117)

      Physics.
      It has brakes because with that much mass, an object in motion tends to stay in motion and an object at rest tends to stay at rest.

    • by squidflakes (905524) on Friday September 07, 2012 @11:14AM (#41260409) Homepage

      It would have to be on a hell of an incline. The friction between the tracks and the suspension is enormous. I've ridden the thing a couple of times and they really have to gun the throttles to get everything rolling. After that, they throttle down just a bit to maintain a nice even pace.

      • It can't be too much of an incline, or the rocket would fall over.
        • by trout007 (975317)

          There is a pretty good slope up the pad. But the CT has leveling hydraulics to keep the pad surface level.

      • by JWW (79176)

        Heh, "gun the throttle."

        All I can think of it 0-1 mph in .....

        • Well, gun in a relative frame. I guess "They have to advance the throttle level faster and to a higher setting..." just doesn't have the same ring.

          • by JWW (79176)

            "gun-it" is great, it just brings to my mind a picture of the trawler driver gripping the wheel tightly and mashing on the "accelerator."

            • Truly, there needs to be a nail-biting, gut-wrenching, crazy-go-nuts crawler chase scene in a movie one day.

    • by Fwipp (1473271)

      24 million pounds means a lot of inertia.

    • by Squeebee (719115)

      Keep in mind that the crawler isn't just impressive because of the weight it can haul, but also because of the pinpoint accuracy with which is can place it's load. Yes, it could freeroll a little bit, but you won't get a spacecraft positioned within a fraction of an inch that way (think of all the connectors and arms attached to a rocket or shuttle, getting all those couplings right required the rocket or shuttle to be placed very precisely).

    • by sjames (1099)

      Don't let the slow speed fool you. With 12 (soon 18) million pounds behind it, it can keep creeping for quite a long time if that energy isn't removed somehow.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Also when it's not transporting the SatV rocket or shuttle or whatever lorry of the time...that is moving back to the VAB, I guess it can achieve higher speeds "let's see what this baby can do!!" and then they would need brakes.

        "Why do cars need brakes? ... so they can go fast"

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Iniamyen (2440798)
      To make it road legal. Damned government regulations.
      • by uncqual (836337)
        True, the fleet is going to have some real challenges meeting 2025 mileage regulations which, IIRC, are somewhat more economical than 125.7 gallons per mile.
    • Why does it have brakes? Because when you're handling millions of pounds of irreplaceable hardware costing half a billion dollars or more - you want to be sure. You use belts, suspenders, *and* duct tape.

  • An inside source told me that they'll be adding a cool air intake and a bigger exhaust in order to attain the extra power they're after.
    • An inside source told me that they'll be adding a cool air intake and a bigger exhaust in order to attain the extra power they're after.

      Not to mention switching to Gentoo as the OS.

  • I have always wondered why they don't convert the system to rail. Seems like a much more efficient way to transport a vehicle out to the pad.
    • because in this weight class train tracks would SNAP LIKE TWIGS if it turned a fraction of a second out of time.

      • Yet the Russians have launched Energia with their system and the N-1 rocket, despite its many issues, had no trouble getting to the pad either.
    • by WillAdams (45638)

      What's the cost of maintaining (and inspecting) a rail system in an area prone to hurricanes?

      The Crawler travels a (mostly) gravel road.

      • by sackbut (1922510)

        What's the cost of maintaining (and inspecting) a rail system in an area prone to hurricanes?

        The Crawler travels a (mostly) gravel road.

        Another interesting fact... The gravel roadbed utilizes a special Tennessee (?) gravel that is much less prone to sparking than the usual stuff.

    • Most Russian launchers are delivered just this, including Soyuz, Proton, Energia (including Energia/Buran). They're horizontally integrated (as opposed to the VAB's vertical integration) and placed on a cradle. The cradle is moved, on rails, to the launch facility, where the cradle boom tips the launcher vertical and it's integrated with the launch gantry equipment and (excepting at least Soyuz) the hold-down system. An exception to this is Soyuz operated from the ESA site, which are vertically integrated
    • by Squeebee (719115)

      It's an incredible amount of weight to haul, and the crawler's treads are wide to distribute that load. If you took all that weight and concentrated it on a couple of rails the rails would likely buckle under the pressure.

      • You could always use more than two rails.
        • by Squeebee (719115)

          Yeah, but don't forget that crawler needs to exit from multiple bays and head to multiple pads. Imagine the complexity involved in adding switching to that many parallel rails.

    • Or a Barge. You could have a barge on a canal that you flood or drain. Barges of 10,000 tons are not unreasonable, and canal filling / emptying technology is well established. Its possible the center of mass of the rocket is so high that a barge would need to be too wide to be stable without an unreasonable amount of ballast.

      • by 0123456 (636235)

        There were studies on using a barge to move Saturn rockets to and from the pads, but they seemed quite hokey. I believe there are some papers about them on NTRS.

      • by trout007 (975317)

        It was a part of a trade study. The problems were the center of pressure of wind was very high and created a large overturning moment. Also the pads are about 50 ft above the crawler way so you would need a lock at the pad to raise it up for enough room for a flame trench.

    • Sure, it'd be higher efficiency. But it's only used 10 times a year or something. You'd never recoup the costs of converting.

    • Because you'd need a couple of dozen rails per side, along with deep and expensive foundations, to support the weight of a loaded crawler. And it would be practically impossible to create a switching system such that multiple assembly locations could support multiple pads.

    • by trout007 (975317)

      Part of the problem is that in Florida you can't dig very deep without hitting water. So the pad is raised about 50 ft or so above sea level. This means you need a ramp to get up to the pad surface. This makes rail & barges impractical.

    • by trout007 (975317)

      Some US rockets are transported on rails.

      The old Titan IV had the rocket assembled in one building then moved to one of two pads on two sets of rails. The rails had a switch to go to two different pads. Then a building moved over the rocket to integrate the payload. They did this because they did lots of DOD payloads. This way you could have a crew of rocket techs with one level of clearance assemble the rocket. Then at the pad have the NRO people with very high clearance have access to the payload.
      http://s [spaceflightnow.com]

  • I hope they find a use for it someday. Because the SLS (Senate Launch System) will never fly.

    • by tnk1 (899206)

      I hope they find a use for it someday. Because the SLS (Senate Launch System) will never fly.

      That's unfortunate, because I was looking forward to launching the Senate into steadily decaying near-Solar orbit.

    • I'm told that, sometime after the great war; but before 2277, the crawler transporter is extensively modified to serve as a (slightly) mobile command post for Enclave remnant forces operating in the capitol wasteland area...

      • by Talderas (1212466)

        The hilarious part about the crawler being converted to an Enclave base is that the Crawler was moved from Florida to DC.

    • Because the SLS (Senate Launch System) will never fly.

      I hope it does launch. I'd like to see the Senate fly into space :)

    • Nah it will probably be as useful as the Ares I-X launch tower.
  • Try steroids, that's what all the Athletes use to life more weight.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crawler_transporter [wikipedia.org]
    This is one seriously wicked piece of engineering.
    I sincerely hope we get to use it again.
    Diesel-electric, and rides on a road made of a specific gravel that can support the weight.
  • by onyxruby (118189) <onyxruby@[ ]cast.net ['com' in gap]> on Friday September 07, 2012 @11:45AM (#41260779)

    Sweet, it's nice knowing even the boffins at NASA understand that sometimes in life you just need more grunt and a bigger hammer...

  • 55 comments so far and nobody's jumped on the "NASA hasn't used metric units for the crawler. Will roll upside down?" bandwagon yet?
    No comments about how many fully-laden African swallows it would take to move a Saturn V either. Jeez, /. is getting boring.

    • I was just about to. Something along the lines of "Pounds? It's the 21st Century, NASA!" followed by an expression of vague discomfort at seeing "x million pounds" used in earnest.
  • Makes my Ford F150 Pickup seem inadequate.
  • It's about as wide as a six lane highway, higher than a two story building,

    Are six lane highways and buildings the new units of length now? I was still getting used to football fields and city blocks.

  • ... even our astronauts are getting fatter.

  • The giant crawler saves money as they can crew it with a bunch of jawas who work for e-waste.
  • One thing the article could have mentioned is that the US has abandoned its capability to build big machines like this. Marion Power Shovel and its peers, who also built the machines to dig the Panama Canal and other historic feats of engineering, are gone. Empty fields here in Ohio where the plants stood.

    Thinking about this in juxtaposition to present-day ideas of 'innovation', such as new versions of stupid games for telephones, makes me feel ill.

  • I'd love to see some redneck Monster Truck freak try to beat that sucker in a tractor-pull.

    Back as a kid, at least one of the news networks would periodically give progress updates on the movement of Apollo Saturn V-B vehicles out to the launch complex...the actual launches, of course, were breath-taking. The kind of stuff that inspires kids to become engineers.

  • They have two of them?

    OK all I want to know is have they had a drag race with them yet? Come on you KNOW the engineers want to!

    Can the Stig take one around the track?

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