New Mexico's Very Large Array (VLA) photo from

Did You Know . . .

Railroads Are Helping Explore Outer Space?

by Raymond G. Potter

Well, we’re not laying track into the final frontier just yet, but the Very Large Array (VLA), a network of mobile radio telescope dish antennas that is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory are repositioned via a system of double railroad tracks totaling over 40 miles in length. The New Mexico situated VLA is used to explore and map the skies as well as other scientific projects. The VLA was even used to investigate the “Wow” signal detected by SETI researcher Jerry Ehman in the 1970’s that caused quite a stir at the time, but has never been detected again.

New Mexico's Very Large Array (VLA) photo from

New Mexico’s Very Large Array (VLA)
photo from

One of Hein's Treins that moves the VLA dishes. photo from

One of Hein’s Treins that moves the VLA dishes. photo from


The 27 dishes cycle through 4 different configurations over the course of a 16 month cycle, although this has changed in recent years. As you can imagine, moving these massive, fragile things can be quite a chore.


Each dish rests on a set of pads that can be raised to insert a double track transporter vehicle (one of two kept working at all times) under the dish base. The transporter can then move the dish to a new position or into the maintenance barn. The two transporters are called “Hein’s Treins” in honor of their inventor Hein Hvatum who was inspired to design it by his boyhood interest in trains.



NASA’s Own Little Railroad

NASA's railroad transports Solid Rocket Booster components.

NASA’s railroad transports Solid Rocket Booster components.

But wait! NASA is in on the railroad action too! The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral Florida has its own railroad, in use for almost 30 years to move around the solid rocket booster components that propelled the shuttle fleet into space.  Custom assembled in Utah, the solid rocket booster engine segments are rail transported to Florida on special cars weighing 250 tons fully loaded. Where the heavy train has to cross a drawbridge across the Indian River, empty spacer cars are added to spread out the load so the bridge is not overburdened.

An 11 man team maintains the NASA rail facilities. The railroad has two 9 mile sections of track serving the vehicle assembly buildings and the Air Force station. The rails are built to handle 60 mph mainline speeds but safety dictates speeds of less than 25 mph. The system was originally built in the 60’s to handle cars typical of that era, but the shuttle era prompted a major upgrade performed by FEC with welded joints and concrete ties. Motive power is provided by three EMD SW-1500 locomotives, which replaced three Alco S2 locomotives when the shuttle workloads began. NASA’s rail yard has hoppers and gondolas as well, but there are also several custom built cars designed to carry other shuttle components that are unique to this rail yard alone. The rail yard also handles rocket fuel, missiles, Titan rockets and other dangerous loads with equal skill. The NASA railroad team is very proud of their excellent safety record.

One of NASA's Locomotives.  Photos of the NASA trains come from

One of NASA’s Locomotives.
Photos of the NASA trains come from

If you’re looking for a new thrill in your model railroading, maybe a NASA rail yard would fit the bill. If you build it, let us know. Better yet, have SMARTT  build it for you!


from the October, 2011 SMARTT Newsletter

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