You may not realize it, what with the accomplishments for which it is best known—putting people on the moon, creating the reusable spacecraft, and other overhyped nonsense like that—but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a well-established history of buying really cool motorhomes to transport astronauts to their spacecraft—and now NASA is on the lookout for a new ride for its space explorers.
The bar for NASA motorhome coolness is very, very high. Long before a single space-boot touched the first grain of lunar dust, the Apollo astronauts were driven to their Saturn V whip in a specially-modified 1967 Clark Cortez, the motorhome that set the bar for nifty boxes-on-wheels.
The Cortez was notable for its Chrysler 225 cid (3.7-liter) Slant Six engine and—much more importantly to us car enthusiasts—a four-speed manual transmission. Even when the Cortez upgraded to a Ford 302 (4.9-liter) V-8, the Cortez kept its four-speed stick. Yep, a stick-shift motorhome. Why? Because it used front-wheel-drive, of course.
Allow us to explain: The Cortez was the product of forklift manufacturer Clark. FWD was still a novelty in American vehicles; the last automaker to use it was Cord, an Auburn, Indiana base automaker that went out of business in 1937. When the Cortez was introduced in 1963, General Motors’ front-drive Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado were still three years in the future. In forklifts, however, it was common to have the engine located over, and delivering power too, the wheels that did the steering, so it was no big deal for Clark. What they didn’t have was an automatic transmission.
Why not use conventional truck running gear like most motorhomes? Because front-drive gave the Cortez its unique selling proposition: A low, flat floor that gave it a low step-in height, with no need to climb up and over the machinery. (As it happens, the Cortez did get an automatic in 1971—Clark sold the Cortez design to Kent Industries in 1970, and they switched to a Toronado powertrain, with a 455 (7.5-liter) V-8 and three-speed automatic transaxle. General Motors would later use the same powertrain in its own low-floor motorhome.)
Back to NASA, which used its Cortez to shuttle our astronauts for a decade and a half, well into the Space Shuttle era. But as the Shuttle’s flight crews grew larger, the Cortez became too cramped. In 1984 it was replaced by something larger and equally impressive: A modified Airstream Excella motorhome, which melded the famous aluminum-Twinkie styling of Airstream’s travel trailers with a rear-drive GM motorhome chassis. NASA dubbed their new RV the Astrovan.
Airstream had a history with NASA; several of its travel trailers were stripped of their wheels to serve as the basis for the Apollo missions’ Mobile Quarantine Facility. Starting with Apollo 11, MQFs were used to isolate astronauts returning from the moon, but they were retired after Apollo 14 in 1971, by which time it had been determined that lunar pathogens posed no serious threat to us Earthlings.
Like the Cortez, the Astrovan had its interior largely stripped and replaced by two long blue benches which had space underneath for the astronauts’ breathing gear. NASA reportedly looked into replacing the Astrovan with something even larger, but rookie Shuttle crews viewed it as a tradition and insisted on its continued use. The Astrovan’s career spanned nearly thirty years, and it was retired along with the Space Shuttle fleet after Atlantis flew STS-135, the final Space Shuttle mission, in July 2011. It’s now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
That brings us to our current situation. As part of the SLS program, the agency is gearing up for the return to crewed spaceflight with the Artemis missions. (Doesn’t GM ever get sick of NASA stealing their names? First Astro Van, then STS, now SLS. ) Once again the astronauts will need a ride to their Orion rockets (another name stolen from GM). Instead of reviving the Astrovan, NASA is looking for a new astronaut transfer vehicle, and it is actively soliciting proposals.
Who will provide the next-gen Astrovan? Airstream seems like the logical choice, but they’re already building a transfer vehicle for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner program. The Astrovan II (oh, the gall!) is based on the Atlas RV, built off a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van platform. (Makes sense—after all, it was German rocket scientists who helped get us into space.) We’re not sure where NASA will turn for their new RV, but we’ve got a few suggestions.
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