LAUREN JOHNSON Marking the 30th anniversary of Urban Studio Auburn and its work in Birmingham,…
March 17 graduate in aerospace engineering Breanne Rohloff ’19 will settle into her 2016 Chevrolet Cruze and make her daily one-hour commute to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) where she works as an engineer. Rohloff’s car is automatic because, she admits, “I don’t know how to drive a stick shift.”
Somewhere in the same KSC parking lot, Dan Zapata ’15 ’18MS will pull his Honda Accord between a pair of yellow lines and lock the doors out of habit. For Zapata and Rohloff, parking their everyday cars will be the last moments of normalcy on this historic day.
“We’ve seen a lot of amazing things,” says Zapata, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at UCF, “but it will be a whole new level of admiration for us.”
It will be a new level of fear for the whole world. Zapata and Rohloff happen to have a closer view of the story. At 5 p.m., the doors to the KSC Vehicle Assembly Building will open. There, standing in the giant bunk, the enormous Orion spacecraft will pose atop the massive Space Launch System. Marching bands will play. The dignitaries will applaud. Photographers will kneel down and focus. Like royalty, the largest spacecraft ever built will zip past them on the gigantic back of the Crawler Transporter 2 (CT-2) and continue the 4.2 mile journey to the launch pad to refuel and a simulated countdown known as the dress rehearsal for the Artemis I mission (the actual launch is scheduled for early summer).
Spectators will not have to struggle to see well. Orion and the SLS will move at less than 1 mph in the mighty arms of the 6.65 million pound CT-2 – the largest autonomous ground vehicle on our planet. Flying 6 inches, 26 feet above the road, Rohloff and Zapata will take turns making sure the spacecraft arrives at Launch Pad 39B without a scratch.
“Mentally, it’s intense,” Rohloff says. She flew the CT-2 in trials and operational tests, but this payload is literally in a class of its own. “We attended information sessions, learned the history and took the training. But when we’re on the robot and we’re moving a spaceship as big as this… nothing can simulate it.
How did two UCF graduates, still in their 20s, land at the controls of the world’s largest autonomous vehicle and the responsibility that comes with it?
For Rohloff, the journey began in Mansfield, Ohio, where she could only imagine such a surreal concept as a “space program.” Two cousins brought her to UCF, which brought her a lot closer to NASA and real rocketry. While interning at KSC, Rohloff learned from longtime engineers who occasionally took him for rides aboard the crawler.
“It looks huge in the pictures, but in person it’s way bigger and much slower than expected,” says Rohloff.
Zapata grew up in South Florida, enrolled at UCF to study in the prestigious engineering program, and began a career in power grid consulting after graduation.
“After a few years, I wanted to change scenery,” he says.
So Zapata was interviewed at NASA for a post that mentioned “carrier maintenance.” He landed the job and got the change of scenery he wanted.
“One day, I’m driving across the yard to the robot and I look up and think, ‘Oh my…that’s the transporter, the vehicle that moves the rockets.'”
And now he and Rohloff drive it. They carry NASA’s most powerful rocket and Orion, and covering the first four miles of a journey to life on the moon and then on Mars. The word “fat” comes to mind. So do a few more.
Rohoff: There’s always a feeling of awe when I’m on the crawler and feel it move. But there is also a feeling of humility because we are entrusted with the transport of this historic rocket.
Zapata: We’re literally driving a vehicle the size of a building, and it’s the same vehicle being transported Apollo rockets and now a skyscraper at the launch pad. Nothing can compare to it.
Rohoff: We followed two years of training to become caterpillar operators. It takes time, determination and mental energy to get to this point. In other words, it didn’t take two years to prepare for an engineering final.
Zapata: There is no Class 101 for this job. It might be cool to gift one, though.
Rohoff: The most important thing is to listen to the wisdom of the people who have driven the crawler before us. They know better than anyone what it is and what to watch out for.
Zapata: You can only be exposed to noise for a very long time, that’s why we carry very good earplugs. And the Kennedy Space Center is part of a wildlife sanctuary, so yeah, it can be interesting.
Rohoff: Alligators sometimes cross the roadway. I also saw turtles there. Fortunately, the animals feel the ground vibrate and they have plenty of time to move.
Zapata: When we drive the robot, we are high enough to see people gathering to look into the distance. This time the crowd will be bigger than usual.
Rohoff: It’s exciting to feel the power and know that everything is moving – the robot, the spaceship, this whole structure. When we’re not driving, we look forward to getting behind the wheel. We pat each other and say, “OK, it’s my turn.”
Rohoff: We change every hour or so. It’s the same duration as my commute to work in the morning, but this commute is exhausting. You listen to the comments of dozens of people, you look through the windows all around, you only drive a few hundred meters and you think: “Phew! I’m ready to mentally reset.
Zapata: There’s a lot of equipment and manpower invested in that. Just for the crawler, we have dozens of people paying close attention to everything.
Zapata: The steering wheel is smaller than a golf cart steering wheel. The wheel sends messages to the hydraulics, so be aware that it takes the crawler a bit of time to adjust its movement.
Rohoff: We use markers on the ground – like a cement pillar, grass line, or lamp post – as indicators to start a turn. If we don’t time it right, we have to stop and back up. At first it’s a bit awkward. But it’s not a question of personal pride. It’s a big team effort to ensure a smooth ride for the cargo.
Rohoff: I’m not the first woman to drive the crawler, but I’m the only woman currently driving it and the first woman in the Artemis generation. When I came here as an intern, I knew that NASA would soon be sending the first woman and the first person of color to the moon. It means a lot to help pave the way for this to happen.
Zapata: We are at the pinnacle of another starting point in space history – to eventually sustain life in deep space. There are people who work here who made Apollo possible. In 30 or 40 years, we will be able to say: “We were part of Artemis. So I’m excited to get the rocket on the pad and watch it take off.
Rohoff: I’m not sure exactly where we’ll be looking, but I know we’ll get an incredible view of the story unfolding.