Transporting astronauts is a niche business, that’s for sure. But when you think about astronaut transportation, it’s usually an image of rockets launching or spacecraft docking with the International Space Station (ISS) that comes to mind. First, however, the astronauts have to get to the launch pad… and that’s where Boeing’s new Astrovan comes in.
Astronauts have always had to ‘hitch a ride’ to the launch pad and, because of the size of their spacesuits and life support systems, this has typically involved some sort of transporter van. In the 1960s, US Mercury astronauts travelled alone from their crew-quarters at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station inside a converted semi-trailer known simply as the ‘transfer van’. It was pulled by a tractor-unit manufactured by the REO Motor Car Company, the firm whose 1915 ‘Speed Wagon’ gave a rock group its name.
Gemini astronauts used a couple of smaller, non-descript vans that have pretty much failed to register in the historical record. The Apollo-era ‘astronaut transfer van’, however, was much better known thanks to TV coverage of the lunar missions and the classic media photo-opportunity of crews climbing into the van outside the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), wearing their bulky white spacesuits and carrying their portable suit ventilators.
The Apollo transfer van was a modified Clark-Cortez motorhome and was used throughout the Apollo and Skylab programmes to transport astronauts to Launch Complex 39 and, thereafter, for the first eight Space Shuttle missions. The vehicle itself is currently on display at the Apollo Saturn V Center at the KSC Visitor Complex.