“Everything was better in the old days” can be an appealing sentiment, particularly in these trying times. It’s not true, of course—everything wasn’t better back in the day, and human memory is excellent at ignoring all the horrible, terrible bits and just hanging on to the happy ones. But that doesn’t mean all progress is necessarily great, either.
Exihibit A: Astrovan II, the new vehicle meant to transport NASA’s astronauts to the launchpad of the still-not-ready CST-100 Starliner crewed capsule.
In the old days, when NASA still had its own crew-rated launch capability, those crews made the nine-mile journey to the launchpad in style. From 1984 until the end of the Space Shuttle program, that meant getting into a modified Airstream Excella RV, dubbed the Astrovan. Astronauts and Airstream have a fair amount of history—one of the company’s distinctive shiny aluminum trailers was also used as the Mobile Quarantine Facility for the Apollo program. So when Boeing wanted a new transport for forthcoming NASA missions using the CST-100, it too turned to the Ohio-based manufacturer.
The result is Astrovan II, built on a modified Airstream Atlas Touring Coach, which itself begins life as a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van chassis. “The original Astrovan played an important role in America’s Space Shuttle era. Many will remember seeing that familiar silver bullet exterior heading out to the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center. We’re excited for Astrovan II to continue Airstream’s part in helping put Americans into orbit,” said Bob Wheeler, CEO and president of Airstream.
I am sure that the new Astrovan II will be well-suited to the needs of the astronauts it will transport, and since it’s not built with 1980s powertrain technology, it will hopefully burn less fuel as it drives back and forth across Kennedy Space Center. But 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? 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.
OK, perhaps I’m being a little unkind—a quick look at Airstream’s lineup shows it doesn’t currently offer a curvy aluminum RV any more—if you want that retro look, you also need a tow vehicle because it’s only available with an Airstream trailer. But more than that, the news that CST-100 is getting its own crew transport just reminds me that we first saw the CST-100 pressure shell back in 2011. Our own Lee Hutchinson even got to play with a full-size CST-100 demonstrator in 2013. But as Eric Berger has reported, since then it’s just been delay after delay. With any luck, Boeing will actually manage to conduct that pad abort test this coming November.