One of NASA's two Crawler-Transporter vehicles, which were used to haul the space shuttles to their launch pads, will soon receive a significant upgrade. Once the improvements are made, it will be able to carry the space agency's new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, starting in 2017.
Billed as the largest self-powered land vehicles in the world, the 2,750-ton Transporters made history between 1981 and 2011, as a hallmark of the Space Shuttle Program (SSP). Throughout the decades they were used, they drove a combined distance of 2,526 miles (4,065 kilometers).
In addition to carrying the shuttles in their fully-fueled, flight configuration – external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters included – the platforms also carried the massive Saturn delivery systems.
Each of them is about 40 meters (131 feet) long and 35 meters (114 feet) wide, and weighs 2,721 tons. These characteristics curb their top speed at around 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) per hour.
They are based at the NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC), in Florida, where the SSP was operated from. Until the shuttles were retired, its job was to move the spacecraft from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to one of the two launch pads.
In the coming months, CT-2 will be upgraded so that it can carry 8.16 million kilograms (18 million pounds), a 33 percent improvement from its current carrying capabilities, of 5.44 million kilograms (12 million pounds), Universe Today
Supporting the upgrade will be new exhaust systems, advanced hydraulics, more up-to-date computer systems, and more efficient brakes. Two of CT-2's onboard power engines will also be replaced.
“When they built the crawler, they overbuilt it, and that’s a great thing because it’s able to last all these years. I think it’s a great machine that could last another 50 years if it needed to,” explains KSC Crawler-Transporter systems engineer, Bob Myers.
When the two-stage SLS is completed (first flight scheduled for 2017), it will weigh about as much as the Saturn rockets that took the Apollo capsules to the Moon. The rocket will be capable of placing between 70 and 129 tons of cargo into low-Earth orbit.
NASA plans to use this vehicle to launch astronauts towards a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and towards the surface of Mars, by 2030. Human crews will use the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for these missions.