This summer, Bill Couch will be laid off from his job. What makes him different from thousands of other Americans experiencing the effects of recession? His resume, for one. Couch spent the last 18 years driving The Crawler, aka "That massive mobile platform that NASA uses to haul the space shuttle to its launch pad. You know the one. It looks like something out of Star Wars."
As NASA prepares for the final shuttle launch on June 8th, NPR interviewed Couch and his crawler colleagues about their jobs and plans for the future.
The crawler guzzles gas -- going only 32 feet per gallon -- and is the biggest self-powered land vehicle in the world. To get a sense of just how big it is, imagine a major highway with two lanes on either side and a grassy median in the middle. Driving a crawler down that highway would cover up the entire thing. "So you're driving on all four lanes, plus the grass in between," Couch says.
Of course, he doesn't drive the crawler on the interstate. It goes on NASA's "crawlerway," a special road to the launchpad that's about 3.5 miles long.
The crawler's titanic treads grip the dirt of the "crawlerway," a special road between the launchpad and the hangar-like structure where the shuttle is assembled. The road is designed to hold the combined 18 million pounds of the crawler and the shuttle it carries. "The crawlerway is constructed such that, you know, it can hold and manage 18 million pounds," Couch says. "You drive off the crawlerway, you start sinking."
So it will take skill and concentration to move Atlantis to the pad. Couch and the other drivers will take turns through the night so they stay fresh -- because the trip takes hours.
The crawler is a slow giant. The speedometer in its cab only goes up to 2 mph. And with the shuttle onboard, Couch will go far slower than that. "Even driving at 0.8 miles an hour, if you're not paying attention, it will get away from you," Couch says. "So how does it handle? Eh, you've got to watch it."
Thanks Sarah Green!
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.