Interview with the guys who drive the Space Shuttle Crawler


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."

NPR: Who Will Shuttle the Shuttle: The Last Crawler Crew

Thanks Sarah Green!


  1. Isn’t it time for another story or photo of someone’s homemade AT AT? These seem to occur on a regular basis and I think we missed one last week.

  2. More jobs lost. Not like there are many other places that will hire crawler drivers or rocket scientists. This is a terrible loss to the nation, and something we will not easily get back. I blame Bush. One of the first things he did when he got in office was cancel the new shuttle program.


    1. “One of the first things he did when he got in office was cancel the new shuttle program.”

      A correction. Bush didn’t cancel the “new shuttle program.” Bush announced plans to cancel the current shuttle program in 2004. At the same time he announced plans for the new program: Constellation. Obama canceled Constellation in 2009, shortly after entering office.

    2. Not so many crawler drivers needed, thanks to advances in space travel technology (I do like Reaction Engines’ design – takes off and lands on a regular runway – no need to spend days crawling the thing out vertically), but now that the private sector is getting its act together properly for space travel, these jobs exist and will expand. The appetite for taking things from here and putting them up there is still growing.

  3. Back in the 80’s Road and Track magazine did a test drive review of the crawler for one of its April fools issues. It was awesome, with all the technical specs and everything. 0-5 mph in 20 seconds. Turning radius of 200 feet. I’m making those numbers up, but you get the idea.

  4. This wasn’t addressed in the NPR story, as far as I know: was there a significant reason for building the assembly facility 3 and a half miles from the launch pad?

    1. They tried putting it closer, but they had to keep rebuilding it after every launch.

    2. The VAB was also built during Apollo, which would have had a much larger explosion should something have gone wrong.

  5. According to my lottery entry for the chance to buy viewing tickets the launch is July 8, not June 8

  6. I’m almost surprised a lot of this isn’t computerized at this point. I know it’d take humans to dock/pickup the shuttle and drop it off, but the actual drive I’d think would be fairly simple (if not tedious).

    Either way I wouldn’t want to accidentally leave the “crawlerway” while the shuttle is in tow. That much weight and height and you start sinking….omg. I think after a couple of trips it wouldn’t be that bad, but the first time behind the wheel I’d be a sweaty messy.

    1. It comes down to cost. It is cheaper to run the existing hardware and employ the drivers than it is to try and put in a computerized system, especially for something as specialized as transporting the Shuttle to the launch pad. You’d have to spec out the system, release a contract bid listing all the requirements that you’ve decided on, and then wait for the contractors to build it. Once built, it would have to be installed and tested to the point it worked for all nominal, and semi-nominal situations. So you’d have to then argue to Congress and the public why spending X00 million dollars and XX months (or years) is a good thing for something that will only be used until mid 2011. (Or then find something to justify using it past that date, like for Constellation, as was the plan.)

      If we were designing a system from scratch today, then use, there would probably be a good deal of computerization in it. But the crawler is recycled from the Apollo program already, so its no wonder it isn’t digital.

      Hope that helps! ^^

  7. Sorry to hear the guy lost his job, but I’m more curious about what they’re doing with the crawler. Surely there’s an alternative use for this giant flatbed truck?

  8. I’m just delighted to find out that there is a vehicle that gets worse mileage than my 1973 Chevy, aka “Vlad the Impala.”

  9. Look, it’s pretty clear we’re not getting any Imperial AT-ATs any time soon. Would it really kill NASA to let us convert that thing into a Jawa Sandcrawler and drive it to Burning Man?

  10. Its weight of 18 million pounds makes 32 feet per gallon an incredibly low gas mileage. In fact, I don’t believe it.

    1. *Could* work out according to my crude back-of-the-envelope guesstimate:

      They say this vehicle drives 10m on a gallon. Let’s say a typical new passenger car get 30 mpg (should be in that ballpark anyway), which would be about 50,000m. Ratio ~5,000.

      Okay, now for the weight ratio. The Crawler weighs 18,000,000 lbs. Let’s assume a normal car weighs something like 3,000 lbs (just looked around, looks like a reasonable guess for the gas mileage above), which would yield a weight ratio between the two of 6,000.

      Close enough if you ask me.

    2. 32ft per gallon is impressive, but over 3.5 miles it uses around 17,325 gallons of fuel. and it does that journey twice every launch.

      hate to see that bill.

      1. That’s 35k gallons per launch. I don’t know that kind of fuel it uses, but it can’t cost much more than $150k for that, regardless.

        Actually launching the shuttle into space costs about $10k/pound of payload. The bill for the crawler is the cost equivalent of the crew having each eaten a meal just before launch.

    1. I believe the crawlers are named Hanz and Franz.

      There’s no crawler named Old Maria?

  11. Stick a brick on the gas pedal and point it toward the ocean, it’ll make a great artificial reef.

  12. or . . . what a great way to show off the the ark, it will fit on a freeway, now it can tour all over the country. Traffic problem, who cares, it’s the ARK!

  13. So … how does the shuttle get from crawler to launch pad?
    Giant slow moving spatula?

    1. The Mobile Launch Pad and shuttle ride on the back of the crawler out to the concrete pad. The crawler drives up the side of the concrete pad using hydralics to keep the MLP and shuttle upright. Once at the top, it raises the MLP and drives forward to four large supports. It slowly lowers the MLP down to the supports, backs down to the outside of the launch area fence. There’s a control cabin on both ends of the crawler to simplify things. I worked out there for 3 1/2 years.

  14. This is one of those things where I like to imagine how my grandkids will react to it when they’re my age. I assume it would be sort of like me touring a Univac.

  15. I’m guessing their teen-age kids have never stolen their keys and taken this thing out for a joy ride.

    But it would be cool if I were wrong about that.

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