Before space shuttle Atlantis can carry astronauts up on the very last shuttle mission ever, workers on the ground first have to carry Atlantis to the launch pad.
The last shuttle launch is planned for July 8. But the shuttle's final trek to the launch pad is Tuesday night. It's a historic milestone for NASA — and a very personal one for the people in charge of taking the shuttle on this first leg of its final journey.
"It's a bittersweet feeling. You hate to see anything come to an end," says Bill Couch, one of only six people certified to drive "the crawler," a massive beast of a machine that carries the shuttle to the pad.
The space shuttle, its solid rocket boosters, and its fuel tank are all put together in NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building, a tall hangar-like structure several miles away from the pad. The fully-assembled shuttle is a huge, heavy, and delicate object — and it needs to be transported standing upright.
So it travels on top of the crawler, which looks like a cross between a flatbed truck and a tank. The crawler guzzles gas — going only 32 feet per gallon — and is the biggest self-powered land vehicle in the world.
To get a sense of just how big it is, imagine a major highway with two lanes on either side and a grassy median in the middle. Driving a crawler down that highway would cover up the entire thing. "So you're driving on all four lanes, plus the grass in between," says Couch.
Of course, he doesn't drive the crawler on the interstate. It goes on NASA's "crawlerway," a special road to the launch pad that's about 3.5 miles long.
"And the crawlerway is constructed such that, you know, it can hold and manage 18 million pounds," says Couch. "You drive off the crawlerway, you start sinking."
So it will take skill and concentration to move Atlantis to the pad. Couch and the other drivers will take turns through the night so they stay fresh — because the trip takes hours.
The crawler is a slow giant. The speedometer in its cab only goes up to 2 mph. And with the shuttle on board, Couch will go far slower than that. "Even driving at 0.8 miles an hour, if you're not paying attention, it will get away from you," says Couch. "So how does it handle? Eh, you've got to watch it."
As he does his work, he will be watched — by thousands of people. Shuttle workers are getting special passes to bring their families to view the final rollout, says Mark Nappi, an executive with United Space Alliance, the main shuttle contractor.
Nappi, who has worked with the shuttle program for 26 years, will be at the final rollout with his wife and two teenage sons. He says that they and the other observers will have an incredible view as the crawler moves Atlantis out of its hangar and the big white spaceship gets lit up by powerful spotlights.
"The people that haven't seen it before are just going to 'ooh' and 'ahh' because it is just an incredible sight," says Nappi. "It is a very large vehicle and they're very close, so they're going to see a perfect shot of it."
Nappi says the end of the shuttle program is starting to feel real — in part because people are losing their jobs. "You know, that makes it very personal for a lot of us. We've worked in this program for a long time. We've worked alongside a lot of these people, and we're laying off a lot of people."
Couch says he doesn't know what's next for him, when the space shuttles are museum exhibits that no longer need a ride out to the launch pad. But after 18 years of working with the crawler team, he's gratified that so many people will see this final rollout.
"You've known all your life that you've been carrying this, this, you know, big package," says Couch. "You've been carrying the pride of America on your back the whole time. And now you have the sense that these people standing on the sidelines are actually getting to see what we do."
This last trip to the pad will be unique, but in some ways it will be the same as always, says Couch. When the shuttle is safely at the launch pad, an event known as "hard down," the close-knit crawler team always has a little ritual.
"Our little celebration that we do, is we open up a bag of chips and salsa," says Couch, who notes that champagne is not an option for drivers entrusted with the crawler, even after something as significant as the shuttle's final trip to the pad. "It will probably be the same ceremony we have done for every other hard down. We will have our chips and salsa."
Then they'll back up the crawler and drive away, leaving the space shuttle behind.