Airstream has become known as the makers of the pinnacle of recreational vehicles signified by their “silver bullet” profiles. But a half-century ago, Airstream also was recognized as a supplier of transportation services to the American space program. Now the company is getting a chance to reprise its role in rocketry as the U.S. space program begins experiencing a bit of a renaissance.
The Jackson Center, Ohio-based manufacturer has initiated a partnership with Boeing as the aircraft giant competes with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch next year what would be the first contingent of Americans taking off for space from U.S. soil since the last Space Shuttle launch in 2011. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is slated to carry three humans to the International Space Station in 2020.
No, the Starliner isn’t shaped like an Airstream travel trailer. But Airstream is supplying a vehicle known as Astrovan II to transport the astronauts to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The vehicle is a modified Airstream Atlas Touring Coach named after the original Airstream trailer, nicknamed “Astrovan,” that, beginning in 1983, carried astronauts the last few miles to their space-shuttle launches at the Cape.
“More than just a promotion, this represents the latest chapter in Airstream’s involvement in manned space flight,” Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler told Chief Executive. “We love this part of our history.”
And actually, Airstream’s history with the space program goes back way before the space-shuttle program. Airstream first became associated with the space program in the public consciousness in 1969, the year Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It was tasked with supplying a vehicle that many Americans of baby boomer vintage and older will remember: the trailer that quarantined astronauts from other earthlings after they returned home from the moon.
NASA scientists wanted to protect against the possibility that the astronauts might carry back some alien pathogen from humanity’s first physical contact with the lunar environment. And so Airstream outfitted a modified version of its Excella RV to house Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins after they splashed down on Earth from their triumphal return from the moon.
“We were seen as a capable technology company building mobile environments, where we developed special air filtering and handling equipment,” Wheeler explained. “They wanted to keep the astronauts isolated for a time in that kind of environment. It seems quaint at this point, but put yourself back then.”
Airstream built a total of four of the mobile quarantine labs for NASA’s use in the last years of the Apollo program. Now it is being re-enlisted as America begins re-engaging space travel in a number of ways.
Some key fans of the brand inside Boeing, Wheeler said, helped get Airstream consideration for the role that became Astrovan II, including Warren Brown, Boeing’s executive director of marketing, brand and advertising, and Chris Ferguson, who led the final space-shuttle mission as an astronaut and is scheduled, at the age of 59, to command the first Starliner flight.
“He was a three-time original shuttle astronaut,” Wheeler said. “He told me he loved the original Astrovan. So we had [Brown] pushing on one side and the guy who’s leading the [next] mission say he’d love to have Airstream be part of this story.”
Wheeler said the company, a unit of Thor Industries, is “just thrilled” with its partnership with Boeing. “It’s an interesting sidelight to the [Airstream] brand overall, but it also demonstrates that very high-level technology organizations respect what we do in a way that compels them to involve us in their efforts.”