Shuttle transport crew ready for the long crawl
(kwc: Send this guy an invite to ssrfanatic!!!)
BY CHRIS KRIDLER
CAPE CANAVERAL - Bob Myers' other car carries a space shuttle.
The systems engineer from Titusville drives a hip, bright yellow truck, the Chevy SSR, to work at Kennedy Space Center. But he's about to help drive orbiter Discovery to the launch pad on a crawler-transporter.
Fully loaded, the crawler weighs almost 18 million pounds, and its speedometer goes all the way up to 2 mph. That's a bit of a contrast from Myers' truck.
"It's probably a million times faster," he said of his Chevy. "It's a lot of fun, and sometimes driving a crawler is a lot of fun, too." And both are retro vehicles, he said, laughing.
The Apollo-era crawler's trip to the launch pad will be the first with a shuttle since December 2002, when Columbia rolled out for its final, tragic flight. Discovery is scheduled to fly as soon as mid-May.
There are about seven people who can drive the two crawlers, Myers said, and they switch off during the long trip from the Vehicle Assembly Building. This drive, to pad 39B, will take seven hours, though crawler operations will go on for 12 or 13.
"Probably the most experienced drivers would be the ones moving it out and the ones docking it at the pad," Myers said.
He's not sure which leg of the trip he'll drive, but he's certainly experienced. An employee of shuttle contractor United Space Alliance, he's been at Kennedy Space Center for 27 years and with the crawlers for 22.
The journey should be smoother than any made before. The crawlers have new shoes -- the metal tread pieces that weigh a ton each -- along with a new ventilation system, updated wiring and other improvements.
"You can feel the difference, absolutely," Myers said, even at the usual speed of 0.9 mph. The crawler never goes as high as 2 mph. "It is real slow if you're walking," he said. "If you walked down by the crawler, you could outwalk it in a heartbeat."
But when it's hauling all that weight, it somehow feels faster to a driver. Stopping the crawler "quickly" on its river-rock crawlerway takes 60 to 100 feet, he said.
The crawlers haven't run over anything significant, Myers said, though they have stopped for alligators.
To get a sense of a crawler's cargo, workers used to place a penny where the mobile launcher platform (12 million pounds when loaded with a shuttle) rested on the crawler-transporter.
"It would take a penny and flatten it out about twice the size of a silver dollar," Myers said.
The vehicles have a rich history. They took moon rockets to the pad and later appeared in "Apollo 13." (Off-camera, star Tom Hanks got to drive one.) In "Armageddon," Myers appears as a crawler driver.
When he sits or stands in the renovated cab -- there are two cabs on each crawler, one on each end -- he looks through hurricane-rated glass. A simple console is in front of him. Square buttons offer the equivalent of a gear shift. The gas "pedal" is really a knob that turns. A real pedal on the floor activates the air brake.
A red steering wheel, about the size of a dinner plate, allows turns of up to six degrees each way. And a display shows whether the crawler is aligned with the laser system that lets a driver dock within a half-inch of the perfect launch-pad position. It's comparable to parking a baseball diamond.
While a driver steers, a backup driver sits in an elevated chair behind him. People on the ground radio guidance to him. Experts in the crawler's control room make sure the crawler stays level and watch other systems. And more workers in the crawler's guts, filled with deafening machinery, look for leaks and other problems.
"It's nice that we've done a lot of things to improve the crawler, but it's all about operating it," Myers said. "If you can't operate it, it's not any fun. So yeah, we're excited about it. It's nice to get flying again. That's what we're here for."