NASA’s Colossal Crawler Gets Souped-Up for SLS

Shuttle Discovery riding one of KSC’s crawler-transporters to Launch Pad 39B in June 2005 (NASA)

One of NASA’s two iconic crawler-transporters — the 2,750-ton monster vehicles that have delivered rockets from Saturns to Shuttles to launch pads at Kennedy Space Center for nearly half a century — is getting an upgrade in preparation for NASA’s new future in space flight.

131 feet long, 113 feet wide and with a breakneck top speed of 2 mph (they’re strong, not fast!) NASA’s colossal crawler-transporters are the only machines capable of hauling fully-fueled rockets the size of office buildings safely between the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. Each 3.5-mile one-way trip takes around 6 hours.

Now that the shuttles are retired and each in or destined for its permanent occupation as a relic of human spaceflight, the crawler-transporters have not been doing much crawling or transporting down the 130-foot-wide, Tennessee river-rock-coated lanes at KSC… but that’s soon to change.

According to an article posted Sept. 5 on, crawler 2 (CT-2) is getting a 6-million-pound upgrade, bringing its carrying capacity from 12 million pounds to 18 million. This will allow the vehicle to bear the weight of a new generation of heavy-lift rockets, including NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

Read: SLS: NASA’s Next Big Thing

In addition to carrying capacity CT-2 will also be getting new brakes, exhausts, hydraulics and computer systems.

Part of a $2 billion plan to upgrade Kennedy Space Center for a future with both NASA and commercial spaceflight partners, the crawler will have two of its onboard power engines replaced — but the original generators that power its eight enormous tread belts will remain, having been thoroughly inspected and deemed to be “in pristine condition” according to the article by Matthew Peddie.

When constructed in the early 1960s, the crawler-transporters were the largest tracked vehicles ever made and cost $14 million — that’s about $100 million today. But were they to be built from scratch now they’d likely cost even more, as the US “is no longer the industrial powerhouse it was in the 1960s.”

Still, it’s good to know that these hardworking behemoths will keep bringing rockets to the pad, even after the shuttles have been permanently parked.

“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,” said Bob Myers, systems engineer for the crawler.

You can see some really great full panoramas of the CT-2 at the NASATech website, where photographer John O’Connor took three different panoramic views while the transporter was inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC in Highbay 1. There’s even a pan close-up of the giant cleats that move the transporter.

Read the full article on here, and find out more about the crawler-transporters here and here.

Since the Apollo years the transporters have traveled an accumulated 2,526 miles, about the same distance as a one-way highway trip from KSC to Los Angeles.

Inset image: the Apollo 11 Saturn V, tower and mobile launch platform atop the crawler-transporter during rollout on May 20, 1969. (NASA) Bottom image: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the site of the CT-2 upgrade in August 2012. Each of the crawler’s 456 tread shoes weighs about one ton. (NASA)

30 Replies to “NASA’s Colossal Crawler Gets Souped-Up for SLS”

  1. Your comment, “…as the US “is no longer the industrial powerhouse it was in the 1960s.” makes me VERY angry. My ‘Occupy Wall Street’ mentality knows where the money went… and why.

      1. See below. America’s manufacturing sector has actually increased in terns of absolute output since the 60s. It’s just that robots do most of the work now. More robots = fewer manufacturing jobs.

        Because of that (and the ever falling price of robotic labour) those jobs are never coming back. In just a few short years China is going to start experiencing the same issues with its manufacturing sector that the US is currently dealing with.

        It sucks but it’s true. Point is, offshore workers didn’t kill American manufacturing. Other industries are another story though.

  2. I have seen these vehicles up close like so many others who take the Kennedy Space Center Tour. The overall dimensions were suspiciously un-square listed as 31ft long vs 113ft wide, so I checked first the NASA website link where the same dimensions are listed in what I still supposed to be an error in transcription. The second site linked has it apparently more correct based on my calibrated eyeball. 131ft long vs 113ft wide. This is still much smaller than the mobile launch platform it carries.

    1. This was haunting me last night as well… 31 feet is just not right, and the other sources have it as 131 which is much more ….well, correct. Someone forgot to carry the 1.

  3. “the US “is no longer the industrial powerhouse it was in the 1960s.”

    This is simply not true:

    American manufacturing output is higher than the 1960’s, increases, year-on-year and is far, far more sophisticated then it was ~50 years ago. What has changed? Manufacturing as a vehicle for American employment, and America’s relative output compared to other nations. Simply put, the world has recovered from WWII and technology has progressed. Manufacturing is now extremely efficient, highly automated and generally only employees a small specialized workforce – like agriculture.

    US is indeed a manufacturing giant today. Hiowever, a small and ever-decreasing percentage of Middle Class Americans can tap into it as a source of employment.

    1. Indeed.

      It amuses me when people say “we need to bring our jobs home from China!” Those jobs are never coming back.

      The company that my dad works for does some manufacturing in several countries, including China and the US. (They’ve been having enormous quality issues with their product from China lately, haha. What a shocker:P.) A few years ago they had a choice to make: they needed to build a manufacturing facility with high quality output that would spit out a certain number of units per day. They could build it in China and employ hundreds of low cost workers, or they could build it in the US and employ fewer. It would cost a similar amount either way once everything was accounted for.

      They decided to build in the US right next to their test facility in order to cut shipping distances down. I’ve walked around that (now complete) manufacturing facility. There were 8 people there while the plant was at full capacity. It’s almost completely automated.

      Eight people vs hundreds, and robots get cheaper by the hour. Those jobs are never, ever coming back.

      1. We could have gone the German route, but somehow 1970’s-present corporate culture in America hoodwinked everyone into supporting government polices that actively sent employment overseas to low cost, low quality manufacturers, and the dissolution of organized labor. Now we have a judicial, legislative and executive system that actively favors the interests of cooperate at the expense of the Middle Class. The result is all around us: rising inequality. Yet the system is maintained through ideology. If people knew that America is now last in the developed world for social mobility (i.e. the American Dream), there might be more push back. The average American knows something is wrong, but most people are disengaged enough to not fully comprehend the confluence of historical trends and decisions that got us here. There isn’t enough push back.

        Its a thinly veiled oligarchy disguised as a democracy, and maintained (for now) by national ideologies.

        I doubt there will be any collective shift in perspectives, not without more collective hurt, or perhaps, creative destruction (a rosy term for social unrest and societal upheaval). This may happen yet, but I see something else as being the decisive factor: technological change.

        I’m starting to see that we are headed towards an automated economy. This started with agriculture then later, manufacturing. The Middle Class earns its bread from selling its human labor. However, like the early 20th century battle between the horse and tractor, humans are fighting a loosing struggle. We are increasingly costly to house, feed and provide for. Machines are ever cheaper, more effective, smaller more efficient and cheaper. Like the horse, workers are being driven harder (higher productivity) to justify our utility. We compete against each other, and now machines that can do more and more of our work for less. Its an battle we will all lose eventually.

        We are entering a bad rut. Technology is driving us out of the workforce, while the industrial advances aren’t there to support a decent standard of living without work. As such, there are no replicators or unlimited free energy sources – at least not in the foreseeable future. What will happen when the economy no longer requires most people to engage in labor?

        There are some big challenges ahead and possibly some major shifts in history coming. What society will look like in a few decades may be very different. Hopefully for the better, but nothing seems certain.

      2. I agree, and have a few points to add:

        1) Since humans are being displaced in the labour force, human capital is not an asset as it once was. Countries will a large population will be in an increasingly poor position.

        2) Since robots (a term I’m using for all automation barring someone creating an awesome new word) are slowly supplanting humans in the labour force, and since all you need to create robots of an existing design is manufacturing capacity and raw materials, resource rich countries will be in an increasingly good position.

        3) The other thing needed to create (new, better) robots is intellectual capital, and the infrastructure to support it (education, labs, acceptable peer review standards, etc). Countries that have these in excess will be in a better position.

        4) To reiterate in an automated economy high population = bad, while lots of resources = good.

        5) This leads to the conclusion that countries that are high in population but low in resources (India, Pakistan, Japan, and even many central European counties) are going to be in trouble.

        6) Counties like the US, Brazil, and China with large populations but lots of resources will languish, but still be in acceptable positions.

        7) Counties with lots of resources and low populations like Australia, Canada, and even Russia will be in great positions, not only becoming more prosperous, but likely expanding their global reach far beyond their current regional powerbases (which are especially limited in the case of Australia and Canada). Other places that will benefit, though to a lesser degree: Northern Europe, Iceland, and a few parts of central Asia. Everywhere else will likely see a decrease in relative prosperity.

      3. I forgot to jot down the main reason why a large population is bad.

        Basically, our standard of living can be derived from a basic equation:

        “Standard of Living = Size of Population / Available Resources”.

        That is an extreme simplification of the real world of course, but having sufficient resources per capita is the minimum requirement to having an acceptable standard of living. If you have a higher population, your Resources per Capita (RpC) is lower. If you have few resources your RpC is lower. In both cases your county’s standard of living decreases.

        For any given country the resources it has access to are fairly static, with the exception of renewables like sunlight, trees, and human capital. In the past human capital could somewhat make up for a lack of resources. You could use them as slave (or low cost) labour, or you could build an army out of them. But now it costs more to feed your slaves than it does to buy robotic labour, and a million cannon fodder troops can be eliminated with a single blast.

        “Manpower” is no longer an asset, but rather has become a detriment to a high standard of living… at least in the medium term.

        In the long term the commercialization of fusion power and the advent of more efficient recycling techniques will mean that we no longer have a resource crunch. That will lower the price of providing a sufficient amount of RpC to the population, which will in turn make it very easy to have a decent standard of living. But that’s long term “Star Trek economy” type stuff, and has no place in the next 100 years of economic planning.

      4. Standard of Living = Size of Population / Available Resources.

        Soylent Green, anyone?

      5. LOL! Stephen Colbert mentioned ‘soylent green’ as the ‘solution’ the other night when chatting up an economist pundit.. SO funny!? ONIK!

      6. We have unlimited resources in space. So your basic equation gives us a unlimited “Standard of Living”.

        Planetary Resources is a company establishing a new
        paradigm for resource discovery and utilization that will bring the
        solar system into humanity’s sphere of influence. Planetary Resources is often on the lookout for some amazing people. If you are amazing, please visit;

        Want to learn more? Please check out “New Visions for Humans in Space Panel Discussion, from Planetfest 2012 Aug 5th”;

      7. Absolutely. Once both energy and resources exit their current “economy situation” (ie, rationing, because there isn’t enough to go around), our economy will look quite different. That’s the Star Trek economy I spoke of above. A time when our civilization will need to be driven by something other than basic survival or increasing personal well-being, since neither of those will be issues.

        But again, that’s at least a hundred years off (probably more). We can’t base our current economic policies on that long term goal.

      8. I completely agree. I thought of these factors but for brevity’s sake kept it short.

        I’d argue that its not a clear-cut picture on what places will prosper. Touching on your second point, places with a strong history of manufacturing might be able to leverage their expertise and industrial bases to excel in the development of automated systems. These systems would then drive exports. This might include countries like Japan, US, Canada, Germany, Britain, France and maybe Israel.

        I’d also argue that even in these circumstances, it is locale rather than country that will matter. Liberal, metropolitan areas with strong global connections will have increasing prominence as people and ideas cluster around them. Cities will gain a global standing not seen since the Renascence, where a knowledge based economy benefits from face-to-face meeting. Even though networking technologies have taken off, it seems that salaries, innovations and success are tied to location more than ever.

        One caveat I should mention: Just because a region has an industrial base, doesn’t mean it will be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Detroit is one example of failed policies and businesses leading to industrial decline.

        I’d also note that these changes will exacerbate inequality. Those that benefit from these changes might be service technicians, some knowledge workers and most importantly, capital investors. This bodes well for the connected and the wealthy. Afterall, the upper class primarily makes its money through investments. This is not so good for the middle class and blue collar workers, who rely on selling their human labor to make ends meet.

        My personal feeling is that inequality will eventually cause a breakdown in civil society if current trends continue for decades ( at least in some countries or regions). In a way, we are seeing this issue manifest itself in the Arab Spring, where disenfranchised people are seeing a redress in political/economic imbalances. In the developed world, there is a tightly constructed ideological framework that engenders peace, and in the US the Protestant work ethic. Either of these forces exert a suppressing force on North America’s stomach for civil unrest. We like to think of ourselves as revolutionaries, when in fact, Anglo-saxon dominated societies see little of the street activism seen in other cultures. The last serious major protests or unrest were in the late 60’s and early 70’s (civil rights and Vietnam).

        Things might have to be quite bad before people are willing to be proactive in redressing these trends.

      9. Yup. My feelings on this are that over the next 50 years or so the occupations that will do the best are as follows:

        Technicians (fix robots)
        Financial services (some will be displaced, but many will remain)
        Certain trades like plumbers and electricians (hard to build robots to replace these people)
        Scientists of all varieties
        Engineers of many varieties in many fields

      10. Agree completely. I’d add RFI chip product tags and automated checkout technologies to the demise of the department store teller. In fact, this stuff is already available. Its only a matter of time before we start seeing options for “walking out” of a retail/grocery store without ever needing to step in line.

        Systems like Google driver are probably a few years off at most. I’d even wager that Google’s own system will be ready for production by 2016. This will probably be followed by a decade or so of legal battles in various states/provinces before widespread market adoption becomes realistic. Following this, taxi drivers and truck drivers will slowly be pushed out of those occupations as business practices and culture shifts to the new realities.

        Japan’s automated Sushi restaurants have been very successful – wildly so. Retailers and fast food in North America will work to adopt this eventually. Its just far too convenient for customers and attractive for companies to culturally resist these systems for long.

    2. I am an underemployed mechanical designer. When working, I used CAD programs to design everything from Vacuum Deposition machines, Liquid Chromotography analyzers, electric motors to steer rocket vanes, radar systems, to automated inking systems as used in semiconductor manufacture/testing and other types of robotics. Soooo, in my career I have had a versatile tool kit under my belt… Still, I haven’t been able to find work in my chosen occupation (Research and Development/Manufacturing support documentation) in YEARS! Those jobs are GONE! They have been outsourced to China and India… What we get back, in return, are substandard designs made with inferior materials. Use an ‘el cheapo’ Chinese tool more than twice.. and it’ll break! Just goes to show… “Yah get what you pay for!”

      The Germans seem to be one of the few modern industrial countries with quality in what they produce? THAT used to be a hallmark of American goods… WHA HOPPENED? “THEY got bailed out! WE got sold out!”

      “Hey maan! Have you seen my country somewhere around here?” sheesh…

      1. I totally agree. I’ve been displaced once myself. Off-shoring and productivity increases (without the benefits incurring to the works) are another two devastating consequences of the economic path corporations have sold the American people through their influences in government.

      2. Don’t get me wrong.. I am NOT an isolationist! I revel in the fact that the rest of the world is advancing. What I DON’T like is the belief that because it can be done cheaper elsewhere or maybe by less than intuitive robotics, which is being used as a rationale for excluding the American worker, is just so much horse pattutie! It reeks of greed and smells really bad! The known substandard working conditions for offshore laborers, and the continued profits by those country’s elite administering these profits, simply won’t last! People aren’t stupid! Change is inevitable under these conditions… I hope our politicians figure THAT out? I feel this story exemplifies the best in American creativity. Those crawlers were made to last! by American workers! People who believed in the dream of conquering space! YO! The next frontier! What happened to that dream? Oil consumption isn’t everything, instead it is a artifact of the past. We can do better than that! People like Elan Musk have a clue.. and are ‘going for it!’ I like!

      3. Just one problem with your logic. Our politicians are bribed with reelection donations in order to vote in favor of the greedy corporate scum bags that have out sourced or jobs. They will be of no help any time soon.

      4. Ah, but R&D is another story. The manufacturing decline isn’t related to offshore labour, but the R&D decline in the US is (partly. The declining education standards and reduced government intensives (including grants and tax breaks) for US research are the other pieces of the puzzle).

        From my perspective it doesn’t really make sense to move manufacturing offshore due to supply chain and shipping considerations (especially if you rely on “just in time” manufacturing techniques), but research is different. Would you rather hire one top notch researcher in the US, 10 slightly lesser researchers in Russia, or 30 in China? Even if those 30 Chinese researchers are poorly trained they will probably have more output than any single researcher the company can hire in the US.

        Of course, then you have to worry about Chinese companies stealing your IP. But how many companies thought that would be a serious issue even 5 years ago? Not many, maybe none.

      5. Aqua4U: I know someone who does engineering hiring. That is, he hires engineers

        Do you know what he tells me? He say that there is a huge shortage of engineers at their companies (third party statistics suggest that he’s correct, and that there is also a shortage of physicists and mathematicians). That shortage is growing due to recent baby boomer retirements. He literally can’t find people to fill all of the spots he has. Right now he’s hiring people straight out of school and importing people from Europe and Asia for lack of better options. He grumbles about how much it costs to train them, since most are completely unfamiliar with the type of work they’ll be doing.

        That’s not to say that people don’t apply for the engineering jobs. Just two months ago he was describing some of his interviews to me. He claims that most of the engineers on the market in the US are unhirable, due to personality disorders, severe laziness (this is the most common one), or because they are dumb as fenceposts. (He told me a story about a guy he hired who would literally, literally drop whatever he was doing at 5 o’clock and walk out the door. Didn’t matter if it was a project due the next day, or how behind he’d made himself. The guy just didn’t care.) The hiring manager says that his company isn’t the only one with such a shortage, nor is his industry (oil pump design and manufacture) the only one suffering from the shortage.

        You say you aren’t working (in your chosen field) right now. So I have to wonder, why not? Is your chosen field so narrow that there just aren’t any positions in the US right now? Are you unwilling to transfer to a different city (city of employment is usually a nonnegotiable requirement if you want to get hired)? Are you so grumpy or antisocial that when you walk into an interview the interviewer writes you off immediately as a candidate?

        I was recently looking for a job (found one thankfully, and though it wasn’t exactly what I wanted it is sufficient:)), and the engineering hiring manager I mentioned above gave me some advice on how to do well in an interview. He said that he almost always decides whether to hire someone in the first two minutes of an interview.

        He also said that people lie so heavily on their resumes that he pretty much ignores them except to weed out people who definitely aren’t qualified from even getting an interview. So I say again: if you can’t get an engineering job in the US you’re probably being too picky.

        If you’re not being picky, then it is time to take a close look at yourself in the mirror. And I mean that literally. Sit in front of a mirror and do a faux interview with yourself

      6. Mostly my problem IS related to where I choose to live. Here in Sonoma County, CA, there ARE a spattering of high tech jobs…. at least for those specializing in telecommunications and who have high end software programming experience. Cut throat competition is the name of the game there. With so many out of work, younger engineers, many just out of school, are the preferred employee and chosen over others with more experience. I’m 58.. and let me tell you… after 50 the job opportunities begin to ‘dry up’. Part time or no benefit consulting is about all I can hope for? Or maybe learning Chinese?

        Two of my engineering friends held on to their jobs, temporarily, when they agreed to go to China and set up production lines and train managers there. When they came back they were laid off… nice?

        AND yes, I worked by fanny off over the years, in a multitude of high tech companies (had more than 40 positions as a consultant – so I know what interviews are all about – believe me!) with hopes that my efforts would give me some kind of job security? Fool! Typically, when the product was complete, I would get the ’30 second lay off notice’. Sweet….

        There ARE jobs here if you are willing to work on war toys. I did that too for years, but after witnessing how the political types USED those ‘toys’… some part of me balked. Patriotism gone bad? Rockets, missiles and bombs! Oh my! They are the perfect product.. you need lots of them.. and they don’t come back. Some production line, eh? Merchants of death anyone? Dzzzzz…..

      7. AND yes, I worked by fanny off over the years, […]

        Dude, if you’re ever in Britain, you would be well advised not to use the term “fanny“! Otherwise, serious misunderstanding can result. 😉

  4. For an up close and personal look at a crawler, the Discovery Channel show, Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe fearures an episode in which Mike goes to KSC and helps the mechanics that service the vehicles to clean and relube their under parts… NetFlix has it streaming under, “Season 3 Episode 4: Bridge Painter”… worth a watch if you’re at all interested in these.

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