One Last Trip for the Endeavour

BY Scott C. Benjamin / POSTED September 28, 2012
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NASA Crawler-Transporter vs. Toyota Tundra CrewMax (©2012 HowStuffWorks)

Have you ever seen one of those “strongman” competitions where someone pulls train cars or maybe a few city busses with a huge rope wrapped around his waist? There’s no arguing that it’s an impressive show of power. And, at least for me anyway, it’s always a little bit comical to see someone so (relatively) small moving such a large object. It’s like watching a tiny ant carrying a huge leaf. It’s visually absurd.

About two weeks from now there’s going to be another amazing show of strength (and I’m sure a fair amount of that visual absurdity, too) as a stock 2012 Toyota Tundra CrewMax half-ton pickup tows the massive, retired space shuttle Endeavour to its new home.

It’s well-known that NASA’s space shuttle program has flown its final mission. And if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, then you also know that the retired space shuttle Endeavour has made its way across the USA to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Not under its own power, but by riding on the back of NASA’s Boeing 747 shuttle carrier. (That’s another strange sight, incidentally.) But the craziest part of the journey still lies ahead. On October 13th, the Endeavour — all 300,000 pounds of it — will be towed (via a special dolly built by the Sarens Group, a heavy lifting and engineered transport company), on a 12-mile trip through the streets of Los Angeles to the California Science Center where it will remain on display for the public. Heavy-duty industrial equipment will haul the shuttle most of the way, but then a Toyota Tundra pickup truck — with a 10,000-pound towing capacity — will take over the towing duty for the final quarter mile.

A 300,000-pound load towed by a vehicle with a 10,000-pound towing capacity? That doesn’t add up, does it? How does the (relatively diminutive) Toyota Tundra accomplish what the (massive, purpose-built) NASA Crawler-Transporter normally does? (You can read the specs on the two terrestrial shuttle movers in the illustration above.)

As Irwin ‘Fletch’ Fletcher once said, “It’s all ball bearings, nowadays.”

So true, Fletch. So true. And if you take a look at the way the tow-dolly has been set up — you can see that the Tundra isn’t actually supporting the weight of the shuttle. In fact, the truck won’t be supporting any additional weight. And that’s good because, let’s be honest, the weight of shuttle would crush the Tundra like a bug. So the Tundra isn’t actually carrying the weight, but it will have to pull it. And it’ll do that by simply overcoming the entire rig’s rolling resistance. Good trailer wheel bearings (well, better make that great trailer wheel bearings), lots of grease, fully inflated tires and a nice flat surface to tow across should make this an achievable task for a pickup truck with lots of low-end torque and enough horsepower to keep it moving. If the Tundra were pulling Endeavour fast — like, say, on the freeway and at typical freeway speeds — then it would have to overcome the shuttle’s air resistance (aka air-drag), too. But it won’t have to in this case. If anything, keeping the engine and transmission cool is going to be the biggest test the Tundra will have to face during this quarter-mile pull.

So let’s review: Trailer tongue weight? Almost none. Just the weight of the tow bar itself. Air resistance? Again, almost none (if any). Rolling resistance? Sure, there’ll be a good deal of that to overcome initially, but nothing a strong V-8 in low-gear should have any trouble with. Engine and transmission cooling? Better watch those gauges. Fun to watch a half-ton truck pull a 300,000-pound load? Absolutely!

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