We've said it before and we'll say it again: A NASA logo makes anything look Space Age.
That's certainly true when talking about mundane machines, but even more so when the object at hand is a diesel locomotive. Extra credit because NASA's train is actually used to haul space shuttle rocket booster parts around Florida's Kenney Space Center.
It's like Thomas the Tank Engine meets The Right Stuff:
At the Wilson's Corners junction at the northern end of the space center, the NASA Railroad splits into two nine-mile stretches of track. Kennedy's mainline runs south, past the Vehicle Assembly Building and other Launch Complex 39 facilities before reaching the center's Industrial Area. To the east, a second line of track extends to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Each incoming shuttle-booster segment rests on a cradle in a custom-built railcar. A clamshell-like cover, hinged at the top, protects the hardware throughout the journey. Fully loaded, a single segment car weighs 513,000 pounds.
NASA uses switcher locomotives, which are brawny machines that move a lot of weight over relatively short distances. The first locomotives used by NASA were three Alco S2 locomotives obtained surplus from the U.S. Army. Built in the early 1940s, they worked well until the loads required to support the Space Shuttle Program proved beyond their capability. So Hoffman initiated the procurement process to buy the space center three EMD SW-1500 locomotives built between 1968 and 1970.
The 1,500-horsepower locomotives used today "have a lot of backbone," according to Bryant. "When we bring in the segments and the spacer cars, we've got probably close to 4 1/2 to 5 million pounds that we pull with one motor."
In addition to more familiar hopper cars and gondola cars, Kennedy's rolling stock includes cars modified or designed here. For example, Hoffman designed the booster structures car, capable of hauling additional shuttle booster components such as frustums and aft skirts. There are only two such cars in the world -- both in the space center's main rail yard.
"We've rebuilt the Air Force locomotives. We've built railcars. We've done painting," says URS Lead Mechanic Mike Stephens. He gestures behind him to the No. 3 locomotive, recently refurbished and topped with a new blue-and-white paint job. "I mean, this locomotive here, you can see how much better it looks than the other two. We're a pretty diverse group and we stay busy."
That expertise is essential, considering the dangerous commodities the railroad system so often has carried. In addition to the shuttle boosters, the NASA Railroad has carried nitrogen tetroxide, an oxidizer used as rocket propellant; Air Force Titan rockets; Navy Trident missiles; and the shuttle-based booster segments for the Ares I-X flight test.
UPDATE, 30 December, 2010
Reader Sarah Horowitz ups the rail-geek ante substantially with this bit of news:
Athearn is producing an HO scale model of the EMD SW1500 switcher in three liveries, including the NASA one! Pre-orders are now being accepted. To be delivered in mid-2011.