On Wednesday, with just two weeks to go before the much-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 some @Tesla news that everyone should love,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted. “Check out the Model X that will carry @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug to the launchpad for the Demo-2 mission!”
For nearly three decades NASA’s astronauts rode in the iconic Astrovan. From 1984 through the end of the shuttle program in 2011, crews flying aboard that vehicle would suit up inside a facility at 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, the times they are a-changin’, 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, “particularly spacious, especially with the fully flat floor made possible by the enormous battery pack and no need for a powertrain tunnel running down the center axis of the vehicle.”
Lest anyone be concerned about Hurley and Behnken squeezing inside the Model X, a source said they “absolutely” can fit with plenty of room to spare and have already done so multiple times.
Teslas and Astrovans
SpaceX founder Elon Musk also owns Tesla, of course, and this is not the first time rockets and cars have commingled. 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 around. Musk also launched his own Tesla into space on the inuagural flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018. So this new mode of astronaut transportation probably should come as no surprise.
Both SpaceX and Boeing are building spacecraft to take astronauts into space for NASA under the agency’s commercial crew program. Although Boeing is unlikely to launch humans for another year on its Starliner spacecraft, the company revealed 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’ automobile writer, Jonathan Gitlin, was unimpressed by Boeing’s announcement. “For a relatively short journey like that, wouldn’t it have been neat if it ditched the internal combustion engine altogether for a bunch of batteries and some electric motors?” he wrote. “But really, my main issue is aesthetic because the original Astrovan—like most of Airstream’s polished shiny trailers—just looked so darn cool. And Astrovan II looks like a panel van.”
Musk would appear to have granted Gitlin his wish with regard to electric motors.
Listing image by Jim Bridenstine / NASA