A Breakdown of the NASA Astrovan

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The NASA Astrovan parked outside
Source: NASA

When the NASA Space Shuttle program retired in July 2011 after 135 missions, so did the NASA Astrovan that transported the crew to and from the launch pad.

This modified Airstream motorhome has decades of history and is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex in Florida. 

Let’s learn more about this historically significant vehicle and why crew members looked forward to their ride in the Astrovan.

About NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is America’s civil space program. It has 20 centers and facilities across the country.

Two of the more famous facilities are the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. 

The administration studies Earth, its climate, the sun, the solar system, and beyond. In addition, companies use NASA discoveries and technologies to create new products.

What Is the NASA Astrovan?

During the Space Shuttle era of 1981 to 2011, NASA escorted astronauts from the Operations and Checkout Building to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in an Astrovan.

Despite its name, it remained Earthbound and within the NASA property.

This van is a modified 1983 Airstream Excella motorhome. The astronauts used it from STS-9 through the final Space Shuttle mission (STS-135). You can now see it on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center.

Where Was the NASA Astrovan Made? 

In 1952, the owner of Airstream, Wally Bynum, realized his company had outgrown its Los Angeles facility. He purchased a factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, where the company would eventually move full-time. The facility in California where Airstream began in the 1930s permanently closed in 1978.

Airstream has manufactured Touring Coaches in Jackson Center, Ohio, since the 1970s. The first line, the Argosy, was released in 1974 but discontinued in 1979. This is where the NASA Astrovan was produced.

The NASA Astrovan on display
Source: Airstream

Where Is the NASA Astrovan?

Visitors to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex can see the famous Astrovan on display in the Space Shuttle Atlantis Mission Zone. In this exhibit, guests can also see one of three space-flown shuttles displayed in the country. 

You can also learn about the detailed history of the 30-year Space Shuttle program. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex is open daily. You can get a one or two-day admissions ticket or an annual pass.

History of the NASA Astrovan

From 1984 to 2011, each NASA shuttle crew traveled 9 miles from their crew quarters to the launch pad on board a modified Airstream motorhome dubbed the “Astrovan.” 

Over its 27 years of service, the Astrovan racked up about 26,500 miles going back and forth, traveling the same path. It solely served to transport the astronauts to the launch pad for launch dress rehearsals, on launch day, and after landing.

The interior was nothing extravagant. Dark-gold drapes framed the windows; dark wood paneling lined the walls; dark-blue upholstery covered the benches. But there was something special about riding in the Astrovan. 

According to NASA, STS-135 Pilot Doug Hurley said, “It’s just neat to know that you’re one in a series of a very long line of astronauts who rode in this vehicle going to the pad for flight to space. It’s pretty cool.”

According to one of the drivers, Ronnie King, when word came about a new Astrovan in the works, the rookie astronauts preferred the older model. They wanted to ride in the same vehicle as previous generations of astronauts. 

STS-135 Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus explained, “Actually, traditions are important in a business like this to keep everybody connected at some level…To have something like this continue to be a tradition is really important.” 

The last space shuttle launch happened on July 8, 2011.

Keep in Mind: Looking to convert your van? Here’s How to Find Reputable Van Conversion Companies

The NASA Astrovan parked outside the Kennedy Space Center
Source: NASA

What Vehicle Do Astronauts Ride in Today? 

Airstream collaborated with the Boeing Company to produce a one-of-a-kind vehicle while remaining true to its long history with space travel. The Astrovan II is the new transport vehicle for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew. 

The 9-mile journey to the launch pad will be the same as the trek the astronauts who came before them took mission after mission. This time, the crew will board the Starliner spacecraft that will take them to the International Space Station.

Production of the Astrovan II began in 2019 in Jackson Center, Ohio. The new vehicle seats up to eight astronauts. But instead of long blue-upholstered benches, the Astrovan II has individual captain’s chairs. 

Each set has access to 110-Volt outlets and USB charging stations. AT&T helped create a live streaming system so the public could witness the nine-mile drive to the launchpad.

The NASA Astrovan parked outside
Source: NASA

Why Does an Armored Car Follow Astronauts? 

The M113 is a Vietnam-era armored personnel carrier that follows the NASA Astrovan. It offers the astronauts a safe vehicle to get out of danger. 

Only made for the worst-case scenario, the M113 protects the space shuttle crew from debris that may fall on them. On launch day, three M113 vehicles stand nearby.

According to NASA, Alan Myer, an M113 driver and firefighter, said, “We never know what to expect; we always prepare for the worst.”

Plans for a New Astronaut Carrier 

Like other car manufacturing companies, NASA is moving forward into the electric vehicle market. Canoo will deliver the Crew Transportation Vehicles (CTV) for the Artemis missions to the moon and Mars. Deliveries should begin in June 2023.

The new electric vehicle has certain parameters set by NASA, like having a pod-shaped exterior, releasing no emissions, having a minimum range of 50 miles, and operating for at least eight hours a day.

Canoo’s EV will replace the Airstream Astrovan that has transported astronauts to and from the launch pad for decades.

Do They Still Make Airstream Motorhomes?

The only Airstream touring coaches manufactured today are Class B and B+ units. The most affordable line is the Rangeline which starts at $147,570. The most expensive line is the Atlas which starts at $289,911. 

The Interstate line is the largest at 24 feet, and the InterstateGL model has room to seat nine people. It’s also the number one best-selling Class B diesel motorhome for six years in a row. 

Five touring coaches have a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis, and one is built on the RAM ProMaster chassis.

Pro Tip: Before you purchase an Airstream, Read the Top 5 Regrets of Owning an Airstream!

View of a new Airstream, the company that manufactured the NASA Astrovan

Visit a Piece of History at the Kennedy Space Center

There may be no vehicle other than Air Force One with as much history as the Airstream Astrovan. 

The Astrovan has transported dozens of astronauts to their final missions. This includes John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, and Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to perform an extra-vehicular activity in space. 

You can see this piece of history the next time you visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex.

As NASA moves into a new era of space exploration and discovery, so does the astronaut carrier vehicle. Goodbye, NASA Astrovan. You have served your country well.

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