Three Railroads and a Moon Shot

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
Norfolk Southern locomotives, led by 6920, the “Veterans Engine,” hauling Northrop Grumman SLS rocket components for Artemis II: Mission to the Moon through Atlanta, Ga.

Norfolk Southern locomotives, led by 6920, the “Veterans Engine,” hauling Northrop Grumman SLS rocket components for Artemis II: Mission to the Moon through Atlanta, Ga.

Apollo 17 in December 1972 was NASA’s final Project Apollo manned lunar mission. In November 2024, the agency returns to manned lunar spaceflight with Artemis II, a mission similar to Apollo 8 in December 1968, which marked the first time that humans ventured beyond Earth orbit. Three railroads—Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and Florida East Coast—transported essential Artemis II rocket components to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. If all goes as planned, four astronauts will embark on a voyage around the Moon (though not enter lunar orbit as Apollo 8 did), marking the first crewed mission on NASA’s path toward establishing “a sustained lunar presence.”

Artemis II is to be crewed by four astronauts: Commander Reid Wiseman (front), Pilot Victor J. Glover (center), Mission Specialist Christina Koch (left), and Mission Specialist Jeremy Hansen (right). Glover, Koch, and Hansen are to be the first person of color, woman, and non-American to go beyond low Earth orbit, respectively. Hansen is Canadian and is of the Canadian Space Agency; a 2020 treaty between the United States and Canada actualized his involvement. NASA photo

“This 10-day mission will not only test NASA’s pioneering deep space exploration technologies, but it will also lay the foundation for future lunar surface missions,” NASA noted. “This mission aims to achieve historic milestones, including landing the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon.”

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft launches the Artemis I unmanned flight test, Nov. 16, 2022, from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Artemis I was the first integrated flight test of the agency’s deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and ground systems. SLS and Orion launched at 1:47 a.m. EST. NASA/Joel Kowsky photo

UP, NS and FEC joined forces to transport Artemis II SLS booster rockets for aeronautics and defense contractor Northrop Grumman. The cross-country rail move took approximately six days, commencing Sept. 19 on the UP from Corinne, Utah and concluding Sept. 25 at Jay-Jay Siding where the FEC main line connects with the NASA Railroad, in Mims, Fla. UP no. 1943, “The Spirit of the Union Pacific,” led the consist on UP territory.

The train traveled through 11 states: Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. NS took charge of the special consist in Memphis, Tenn. On the head end: NS No. 6920, the “Veterans Engine,” which “honors the brave men and women who put everything on the line to protect our freedom and enable us to chase our dreams in space,” NS said.

The NASA Railroad and its connection with the Florida East Coast Railway. NASA Kennedy Space Center illustration

“The arrival of the SLS solid rocket booster motor segments is an important turning point as NASA and our Artemis partners begin readying for stacking and launch preparations for Artemis II,” said Amit Kshatriya, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Moon to Mars Program Office at NASA Headquarters. “Fully stacked, these boosters for NASA’s SLS rocket [providing 8.8 million pounds of thrust] are the largest, most powerful ever built for spaceflight and will help send the first astronauts around the Moon in more than 50 years.”

Norfolk Southern photo

“This safe and successful trip is a testament to the incredible dedication and meticulous planning that went into making it a reality,” said NS Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Paul Duncan. “Over the past nine months, the synergy among Northrop Grumman, Norfolk Southern’s Marketing, Transportation and Operations, and Union Pacific and the Florida East Coast Railway has been nothing short of extraordinary. It showcases the power of collaboration and precision in logistics.”

Norfolk Southern photo

“We appreciate Northrop Grumman and NASA for trusting us with their business, and we look forward to continuing to provide safe, reliable transportation solutions for our customers and our country,” said NS Chief Marketing Officer Ed Elkins.

December 1968: NASA astronauts (l-r) Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman took Apollo 8 to the Moon, completing 10 orbits. Apollo 8 was the first manned mission of the Saturn 5 booster and the Apollo CSM (Command/Service Module). It did not carry the LM (Lunar Module). The astronauts, in a live TV broadcast on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, read from the Book of Genesis. Seven months later, July 20, 1969: Apollo 11—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins—landed on the Moon. NASA photo

“Norfolk Southern is proud to play a role in advancing scientific knowledge and propelling humankind into outer space,” added Norfolk Southern VP Industrial Products Leggett Kitchin. “The advance work done by the entire Norfolk Southern team in conjunction with our valued partners can’t be overstated.”

“Our team remained aligned, focused, and efficient throughout to successfully get this important cargo to its destination,” said NS Market Manager Industrial Products Metals & Construction Marketing Michael Johnson.

European Space Agency illustration of the four-person Orion spacecraft.

Artemis II is the second scheduled mission of NASA’s Artemis program and the first scheduled crewed mission of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, currently planned to be launched in November 2024. Four astronauts are to perform a flyby of the Moon and return to Earth via a free-return trajectory, as the first crewed mission beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972. The mission is also planned to be the first crewed launch from Launch Complex 39B of the Kennedy Space Center since STS-116 in 2006.

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