Among the many cars that will cruise down Interstate 95 for the July 8 farewell launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, one vehicle likely will turn some heads.
Four local men will soon be tooling south toward Cape Canaveral, Fla., in a large SUV masquerading as a replica of the spacecraft.
Manning the homemade homage, dubbed the “Chuttle”, will be Bob Scott, Chris Schimpf, Patrick Doran and Chris Rounsaville, friends who have known one another since school days.
The idea for the oddball project started with a simple observation.
“Taking a look at [Schimpf’s] car, we realized that there is an uncanny resemblance between a Nissan Xterra and the actual space shuttle,” said Scott, who is from Swarthmore.
The rest of the group agreed. They decided that the 1,000-plus-mile road trip to see Atlantis’ final liftoff would be more fun if they rode in a handcrafted mock space shuttle.
Doran, a lawyer from the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, was especially excited at the prospect.
“I work long, crazy hours and this is a great opportunity to do something completely different,” he said.
Scott said there will be a sendoff party July 1 at Schimpf’s home in Wilmington, the site of the project’s “vehicle assembly garage.”
The crew will then depart in the pre-dawn hours of July 2 and make two stops on the way to Florida. The Chuttle will first land at a campground just outside of Kitty Hawk, N.C., then make its way to St. Mary’s, Ga., to ride in an Independence Day parade.
Along the way, Schimpf will act as the pilot, Scott the flight engineer and Doran the science officer. Rounsaville, from Conshohocken in Montgomery County, will be the electrician.
How to make a ‘Chuttle’
Right now, the group of 30-somethings is still hard at work building the Chuttle, drawing on their experiences building sets for theater productions in college.
“We’re kind of making things up as we go along,” said Scott. “Very few sets need to be roadworthy.”
The makeshift space vehicle consists of two major parts: the Nissan Xterra and a tall wooden frame secured atop a cargo tray that’s hitched to the SUV.
On the back of the frame will rest a trio of buckets that, when modified, will resemble rocket engines (or so the quartet hopes).
A removable, five-foot-high tail fin will sit on the car’s roof and modified pieces of HVAC ductwork will slide over the vehicle’s sides to mirror rocket boosters.
To bring all of the elements together, the group will paint the back half of the shuttle and the tail fin white to match the car. They’ll also attach fake flames to the rocket engines and add NASA decals to the body of the space vehicle.
Goofiness for a good cause
The group’s southbound “spacecraft” isn’t just about having fun. Early on, the group agreed it would be a good idea to use the project as a launch pad for raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project. That organization helps to connect injured soldiers to support services and programs after returning from the battlefield.
It’s a cause near and dear to several of the men.
“Both Chrises who are on this trip have fathers who served in Vietnam,” Doran said. “Bob has family that has served in recent conflicts in the Middle East. And we all know and appreciate the incredible sacrifice those men and women give to this country.”
The guys are hoping to raise $1,500 for the nonprofit. People can donate to the Wounded Warrior Project through a link on the group’s blog set up to track the progress on the Chuttle construction. The crew will also be handing out cards before and during the trip that point people to the donation landing page.
As of the beginning of June, they’d raised just north of $500.
The group will also attach a Wounded Warrior sticker to the side of the Chuttle to raise awareness as they drive. It will be perhaps the most mundane part of the project’s design.
A rendezvous with awe
The group isn’t exactly sure what to expect from fellow drivers as they make the 15-plus hour trip to the Sunshine State. They do expect that watching the shuttle launch into the sky will be a once in a lifetime experience.
“I think we’re all going to be in awe of the power and the beauty of the whole thing,” said Doran.
“It’s going to be an amazing experience to be part of something with that much historical significance,” said Schimpf.
Atlantis’ final mission is slated to be a 12-day resupply mission to the International Space Station.
An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect height for the Chuttle’s tailfin.