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It takes a railroad to move a rocket booster

June 2020

An NS train crew operating the high-wide train with NASA rocket boosters passes an NS train at a crossing near Unadilla, Georgia.

Rockets and railroads: NS gives NASA a lift

When it comes to moving rocket boosters across the country, even rocket scientists need some help. So who do they call to get the job done? Railroaders, of course – and the Norfolk Southern team played a big role in a recent cross-country trek from Promontory Point, Utah, to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Artemis lunar program is scheduled to put the first woman and next man back on the moon by 2024, according to NASA. The boosters that NS transported from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jacksonville, Florida, will one day power the Space Launch System rocket, which happens to be the only rocket capable of sending astronauts, additional spacecraft, and cargo to the moon in a single mission. It’s a BIG deal.

How did NS get involved? The rocket boosters’ manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, came calling and we answered, according to Erin McCracken, manager clearance, who oversaw the project within NS’ Customer Operations, exception management department. Originating at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Utah, Union Pacific moved the cargo to Memphis, where NS train crews took over for the second leg to Jacksonville.

The third and final portion was handled by Florida East Coast Railway, which delivered the boosters to NASA at the Jay Jay Rail Yard in Titusville, Florida, fewer than 20 miles from the Kennedy Space Center launch site. While three railroads handled the move, only one train was used for the trip due to the cargo’s sensitivity to movement. The same UP locomotives that began the trip in Utah pulled into Jay Jay.

An NS train crew operates the rocket booster train through Trussville, Alabama.

The countdown

An effort like this takes collaboration and careful attention to detail – and it was a long time in the making. NS began working on the project in 2018, meticulously going over all shipment dimensions, every mile of possible routes, and the different scenarios that could arise.

“We initially ran the shipment information through our clearance program and had an acceptable route that we could clear,” McCracken said. “Then we double-checked the weights through engineering, determined how many spacer cars were needed to distribute it evenly, and let the client know we could move forward.”

The collaboration was internal and external. From working closely with the NS network operations center, marketing, two other railroads, and the client, everyone had to be on the same page.

“We met on multiple occasions with Northrop Grumman, had numerous conference calls with all three railroads involved, and had NS police ready to physically monitor the cargo if the train remained at a stop for more than an hour,” added McCracken.

A placard on a rail car transporting NASA rocket boosters.

Go for launch

In the end it’s all about execution. That’s where our NOC train dispatch team takes center stage. Even with a flawless plan, this was a complicated move of very large, sensitive cargo.

“At almost every tenth of a milepost our dispatchers were getting reports that specify the necessary conditions for opposing tracks as the boosters were moved across the route,” said Andy Koch, senior director train operations.

In some locations, no opposing trains were allowed at all. In others instances, only stationary opposing trains were permitted. At other times, they were allowed to move, but at restricted speed. Regardless, it took tremendous attention to detail at all times.

“The road foreman desk briefed every crew on what they were carrying and how to properly handle it,” Koch said. “At the same time, we were making sure that the terminals downstream knew what was coming and when it was coming.”

The NS team delivers

The advance work done by the entire NS team can’t be overstated. When completing a move like this one, though, there’s always a possibility of unexpected challenges. Storage cars on a siding, for example.

“At one point we did have to make some moves to get a few storage cars out of the way,” Koch noted. “We also adapted to make sure it didn’t happen again down the line.”

All said and done, NS had possession of the shipment for just under 36 hours, and aside from a few minor hiccups, the move was completed without incident – just another day on the railroad, as they say. Getting spacecraft into orbit may take a rocket booster, but getting a rocket booster to a launch pad, well, that takes a railroad.