When I think of the $200 billion space shuttle program, RVs don’t immediately come to mind. But back in the day, Nasa commissioned American RV manufacturer Airstream to design and build a space-age RV. Though these Astrovan motorhomes weren’t built for full-time living, but were an important step in the space travel process.
Three Airstream Excella motorhomes were modified into Astrovans
Stripping the stainless steel vehicles of their typical living quarters, these Airstream Excellas were more like shuttles. There were bench seats on either side that could accommodate eight passengers, which is how many crew members could board the space shuttle. The cabin was kept cold with an advanced air conditioning system, since the launch attire worn by astronauts was often heavy.
The only two RV commodities leftover was a lavatory and a refrigerator, and there was a rear hatch that could be used for cargo. So this Airstream was never designed for the astronauts to live in. It was simply a bus. But why would NASA spend around $40,000 back in the day for an RV?
Why did NASA want this Airstream RV in the first place?
You may not know it, but there are many traditions that are upheld before every launch into space. And the Airstream Excella motorhome became one of them. When built-in 1983, it was tasked with taking crew members nine miles from the space center to the space shuttle. And so far, it’s traveled just 27,000 miles.
Other odd traditions include little things, like an astronaut’s breakfast. Started after the first manned American spaceflight, every astronaut eats steak and eggs. And before getting on the Astrovan, astronauts have to play cards with one another until the commander loses. They’re odd little tasks, but they’re important for those about to embark on an intense mission. And the Astrovan provided one last taste of home before the crew climbed aboard their shuttle.
It’s hosted every space shuttle crew, and other famous astronauts like John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. But now, the Astrovan sits in the Kennedy Space Center welcome center, being replaced by a much snazzier Astrovan II.
The Astrovan II is the fanciest an astronaut shuttle can get
The Airstream Astrovan II, built on the chassis of a Mercedes Sprinter, is as luxurious as the shuttle van can get. It still seats eight passengers, though now they get reclining seats rather than just a bench. There’s a TV inside, and plenty of 110V outlets for every passenger to enjoy. In other words, it’s a technological upgrade to its predecessor.
But there may still be a future for the original Astrovan. You see, this Astrovan II was built for Boeing and their Starliner program, not NASA. And NASA is currently looking for solutions to their ground transport issue. Whether there was some contract dispute between the companies is unclear, but the three ideas NASA has are simple.
Options one and two revolve around getting new vehicles, which would either be a commercial vehicle turned into a shuttle or a one-off non-commercial vehicle (like the Astrovan II). Option three, however, is to refurbish the original Astrovan and use it for future service. Personally, I think this is the only good option.
If you’d like to read NASA’s official statement on the matter, and maybe send an email or two, you can find it here. Input will be accepted until October 22nd, so send those emails (or proposals, if you’re a vehicle manufacturing company that wants in on the space program).
Regardless of whether the Airstream Astrovan continues to serve NASA or not, it’s fun to think about how a simple, stainless steel RV has carried 27,000 miles of history. From milestones to final moments, the Astrovan has seen it all.