On Wednesday, with just two weeks to go before the highly anticipated launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, NASA revealed that astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will ride to the launch pad in a stylized Tesla Model X.
“Here’s What” @Tesla news everyone should love,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted† “Check out the Model X who will be wearing @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug to the launch pad for the Demo-2 mission!”
For nearly three decades, NASA’s astronauts rode the iconic Astrovan. From 1984 until the end of the shuttle program in 2011, the crews flying aboard that vehicle would fit into a facility at the Kennedy Space Center and then make the nine-mile journey to the launch pad in a modified Airstream Excella RV.
But as Bob Dylan sang, times are changing and SpaceX has provided a ride in a Model X detailed with both NASA’s “meatball” and “worm” logos. In Ars’ review of the Model X, we described the vehicle’s legroom for both front and rear passengers as: “Extremely spacious, especially with the completely flat floor made possible by the huge battery pack and no need for a powertrain tunnel running through the center runs axle of the vehicle.”
Lest anyone worry about Hurley and Behnken squeezing into the Model X, a source said they can “definitely” fit with plenty of room to spare and have done so several times.
Teslas and Astrovans
SpaceX founder Elon Musk also owns Tesla, of course, and this isn’t the first time rockets and cars have mixed up. At the SpaceX rocket factory in California, as well as its facilities in Florida and Texas, there are small fleets of the vehicles used to move people. Musk also launched his own Tesla into space during the inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018. So this new mode of astronaut transportation should probably come as no surprise.
Both SpaceX and Boeing are building spacecraft to take astronauts to space for NASA as part of the agency’s commercial crew program. While Boeing is unlikely to launch humans on its Starliner spacecraft for another year, the company announced last October that it will opt for a slightly more traditional astronaut transport to the pad.
For this purpose, Boeing will use what it has dubbed “Astrovan II,” built on a modified Airstream Atlas Touring Coach, which itself begins life as a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van chassis.
Ars autowriter Jonathan Gitlin was unimpressed by Boeing’s announcement. “Wouldn’t it have been neat for such a relatively short trip if he ditched the combustion engine altogether for a set of batteries and some electric motors?” He wrote. “But my main issue is aesthetics, because the original Astrovan — like most of Airstream’s polished shiny trailers — just looked so damn cool. And Astrovan II looks like a panel van.”
Musk seems to have granted Gitlin his wish regarding electric motors.
Listing image by Jim Bridenstine / NASA