CAPE CANAVERAL, FL—Hailing the dawn of a new era in long-distance highway travel, NASA officials unveiled Monday the agency’s ambitious plans to put a man on a bus to Cleveland, OH by early 2013.
The complex and dangerous three-day mission, dubbed “Chariot I,” is expected to pass through six states and include two brief transfers in Atlanta and Louisville in both directions, at a reported total cost of $360 dollars plus taxes and fees.
“For almost as long as our nation has existed, man has gazed upon a map of the eastern United States and dreamed of traveling to Cleveland, the largest metropolitan area in Ohio,” NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. said at a press conference announcing the agency’s first major initiative since the discontinuation of the space shuttle program. “Until now, the immense physical and psychological risks involved in any manned mission had put that dream sadly out of reach.”
“But not anymore,” he added. “Next year we are going to Cleveland and back.”
Standing next to a scale model of the vehicle that will make the difficult 1,039-mile voyage—a Motor Coach Industries 102DL3 equipped with extra legroom, power outlets, and a wheelchair lift—Bolden discussed the details of the mission, which is set to carry a payload that includes one change of clothes and a paperback copy of Erik Larson’s The Devil In The White City.
According to Bolden, barring any weather-related delays or the driver not showing up for some reason, the bus will depart from a station in Orlando on a north-northwesterly path following the curvature of Interstate 75 though the inhospitable central regions of Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Once it reaches Cincinnati, the bus will alter its attitude due east and slingshot around the city, merging onto I-71 for the final 130 mile stretch to Cleveland.
“En route to Ohio the vehicle will pass through some of the most unforgiving environments known to science,” said Bolden, alluding to, among other areas, the barren vacuum of Appalachia with nothing going on for hundreds of miles. “But the dangers aren’t limited to outside the bus—whoever makes the journey will have to contend with a host of toxic smells; loud, unrelenting noises at all hours of the day and night; and highly unstable passengers with whom a lack of eye contact alone does not necessarily guarantee one’s personal safety.”
“And those don’t even account for less predictable difficulties,” Bolden added. “The entire mission can suddenly be brought to a halt by the driver’s decision to pull over for a smoke.”
Candidates for the first Chariot mission have already begun rigorous training at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in a true-to-life bus simulator capable of replicating the 52 hours of intense jostling they will experience in a threadbare, minimally reclinable seat. The preparation also addresses specific scenarios such as reading on the moving bus without throwing up, using the vehicle’s disgusting bathroom in stop-and-go traffic, and diffusing a conversation with a man who is clearly going to Cleveland to stalk his ex-wife.
Sources said that of the original 48 applicants, more than three quarters have washed out and returned to their respective branches of the military. Those who remain will spend months training for Chariot’s several scheduled EVAs, or extravehicular activities, during which they will leave the bus for a period of time to pick up food and hang out at a highway rest stop.
“The EVA presents the greatest risk for something to go wrong, whether it’s forgetting where the bus is parked or encountering a ridiculous line at the KFC/Taco Bell,” said mission control specialist John Lawton, who will be in constant contact with the passenger via a direct cell phone line. “You’ve got to be ready to improvise on a moment’s notice, grabbing a slice at Sbarro or, in a worst case scenario, a cup of soft-serve TCBY, and then waiting by the bus until people start to come back.”
“Because if that thing pulls away and you’re not on it, it might be days before NASA can mount a rescue,” he added.
Speculating on what future trips might entail, Lawton said that if the first mission is a success, a three-man Chariot II crew could return to Cleveland by bus later in the summer. He suggested that down the line, perhaps with Chariot V or VI, a NASA team may be able to reach Tucson, where research shows there is a possibility of hailing a cab to the Marriott Courtyard.
“Right now we are committed to putting a man on a bus to Cleveland and bringing him back safely, but ultimately Cleveland is just a stepping stone,” Lawton said. “If all goes as planned, we’ll have voyages to the outer reaches of Chicago, Minneapolis, and beyond.”
“And who knows?” he added. “Maybe it will even happen in my lifetime.”