NASA Railroad Adapts To New Era Of Spaceflight

By  //  March 23, 2012

Locomotive Receives Upgrade


BREVARD COUNTY • KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA – One of the NASA Railroad locomotives recently received a major upgrade, made possible by on-site resources already available inside a Space Shuttle Program-era facility at the Kennedy Space Center. 

Three NASA Railroad locomotives approach the Rotation, Processing and Surge Facility in Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39 area. (Image courtesy of NASA /Jim Grossmann)

The Rotation, Processing and Surge Facility (RPSF) on the north side of the center’s Launch Complex 39 area was built in 1984 to handle the massive solid rocket motor segments that arrived by rail and propelled every space shuttle into low-Earth orbit.

“This facility has never lifted or done anything other than shuttle segments and shuttle parts,” said Kevin Panik, manager of the RPSF. “This is a really historic time for us at (Kennedy), that we’re able to now show the capabilities that we have here.”

Kennedy owns three EMD SW-1500 locomotives, workhorses that have more than pulled their weight hauling solid rocket motor segments in and out of the launch complex.

Years ago, the NASA Railroad team carefully restored locomotive No. 3, which currently handles much of the rail work now that the shuttle era is over. But locomotive No. 2 had the better set of wheel and axle assemblies, or trucks. So managers decided to swap trucks between those two locomotives.

Inside the RPSF, an overhead crane lifts NASA locomotive No. 3 off of its trucks to be moved into position atop the trucks previously used by locomotive No. 2. (Image courtesy of NASA/Jim Grossmann)

Top Equipment

“We want to use the best equipment and the most environmentally friendly equipment that we can on the locomotives that we’re going to be actually using,” explained NASA Railroad Manager John Thiers.

“These wheels and trucks (to be moved to locomotive No. 3) are almost brand new,” said Mike Stephens, the railroad lead for contractor Yang Enterprises. “We rebuilt them here years ago . . . we didn’t want to let them go when we’ll need them.”

Each locomotive weighs about 159,000 pounds, not including the trucks, which add another 89,000 pounds to the 248,000-pound total. Lifting two locomotives is a tall order and requires dual cranes. Typically, if a NASA train needs work, it’s done at the Locomotive Maintenance Facility at the south end of the launch complex. But even that facility wouldn’t be able to handle this job.

“It does not have a crane,” Thiers said. “Normally, to do this kind of work, we’d have to go outside of NASA and rent mobile cranes to do the lift.”

Better Idea

Thiers had a better idea. Before taking over as the railroad manager, he’d served as a shuttle quality assurance specialist for 20 years — and 10 of those years had been spent working in the RPSF.

“My thought was, ‘Why use rented cranes, when we have a facility that has overhead cranes and a railroad track already running into it?’ Thiers said, pointing out that using the RPSF would be more cost effective than using an off-center resource and also provided weather protection during the operation. “We were interested in the cost savings,” said Rommel Rubio, launch vehicle offline elements operation manager in Kennedy’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program (GSDO). “The cranes are already there; we only had to pay for the people.”

The plan was approved, and after months of planning, NASA’s trio of locomotives chugged across Launch Complex 39 on Nov. 27. Locomotive no. 1 positioned the other two directly beneath the 400-ton overhead cranes inside the RPSF high bay, then retreated to a position just outside the door. The trucks of locomotives No. 2 and 3 were locked into place.

On the morning of Nov. 28, the NASA and contractor team of railroad personnel, crane operators, safety observers and managers were ready as the closely choreographed lift operation began.

First, crane operators lifted the cab of locomotive No. 2 off its trucks and moved it aside, clearing the way for locomotive No. 3 to be raised off its trucks and moved into position atop those just separated from locomotive No. 2. The newly assembled locomotive No. 3 then was rolled out of the RPSF by locomotive No. 1. Finally, locomotive No. 2 was attached to the trucks previously installed on No. 3.

The NASA Railroad has three SW1500 switchers, all of which are former Toledo, Peoria and Western Railway units and more than 102 rolling stock cars. The fleet is maintained by the NASA Railroad shop, which also maintains locomotives and cars for Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Image courtesy of NASA)

No Problems

It went off without a hitch. The entire operation was done in less than one work shift, and the locomotives returned to the NASA Railroad Yard that day.

“It was just so easy to bring them in here,” Panik said.

The RPSF is one of many Kennedy facilities designed decades ago for a specific purpose, but boast unusual capabilities and an experienced workforce ready to assist government and commercial customers alike.

Use of the RPSF wouldn’t have been possible without the approval of the GSDO Program.

“They were all for it because it would show other uses for that building, and it worked out great for us,” Stephens said. “Now locomotive No. 3 is in it for the long haul. It’s good for 25 years at the blink of an eye.”

Thiers and Panik expect the success of the train project to demonstrate the availability and the adaptability of shuttle-era resources, helping to lay the groundwork as Kennedy transitions from a spaceport focused primarily on a single program to a multi-user launch complex for both NASA and commercial programs.

“We have a little bit of breathing room now,” Panik said. “We are going to take these facilities, look at their capabilities. If they’re viable for multiple users, then we’re going to bring these facilities up to snuff and make sure they’re good to go for the next 50 years.”