Meet NASA's futuristic HAZMAT response vehicle that ended up in a museum
Inventions do not always succeed, even if they have potential. For example, even the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has had many promising projects canceled and prototypes discarded since its founding in 1958.
Sometimes, this is a matter of funding. Other times, inventions were left behind upon the arrival of brand new, more convenient technologies. This is what happened to one prototype, the Hazardous Materials Handling Emergency Test Vehicle (XHVR-1). Designed as a HAZMAT response vehicle, the XHCR-1 was based around the established M113 manned response vehicle, and had many additional features that could have made it useful. However, it never went into service.
Here’s the story of one of the most viable NASA rescue vehicles: an M113-based armored personnel carrier that presented several advantages to deal with HAZMAT incidents, but could not be saved from retirement and oblivion.
Conception and inception of the XHVR-1
NASA started using M113 armored personnel carriers during the Apollo program, which took place between 1961 and 1972, and landed humans on the Moon in 1969.
By that time, the M113 APCs were used as rescue vehicles during manned launches because they could effectively safeguard rescue teams if they had to go into the launch area to attend to an emergency situation. NASA actually had four M113 APCs at the Kennedy Space Center for emergency use until 2013, when they were replaced by Caiman Mine Resistant Ambush Protection Vehicles.
The XHVR-1 was built using a variant of the M113, known as the M577A3 Armored Command Post Vehicle. The M577A3 included a longer fuselage (meaning that it could carry larger crews — up to six people), a sixth wheel, and a commander's hatch. It also had no weapon mounts because it had been designed primarily designed to serve as a mobile tactical operations center. The M577A3 was originally used during the Vietnam War, but beginning in 2020, the Army began replacing it with the Multipurpose Armored Vehicle (AMPV).
NASA acquired an M577A3 in 1994 and decided to adapt it as a response vehicle for incidents involving hazardous materials (HAZMAT). The idea was to develop a vehicle that could not only safely transport people in and out of hazardous material handling areas, but also allow them to respond to emergencies without leaving the vehicle.
XHVR-1, a modified Vietnam War tank for rescues
The M577A3 Armored Command Post Vehicle had been utilized in the Vietnam War, and it was similar to the M113 tank, so NASA knew how it worked when its Ames Research Center bought it from the FMC Corporation.
For example, it knew its armor could protect a crew from explosions, debris, and fire. And NASA deals with flammable materials all the time (think of rocket propellants, rocket fuels, etc.). So it put aeronautical engineer Philip Edgar Culbertson in charge of the design work that prepared the M577A3 tank for its new application.
Here is what he and his team did to the original M577A3 tank to turn it into a HAZMAT response vehicle:
- They replaced the APC’s commander hatch with a clear polycarbonate dome that allowed a panoramic view of the surroundings.
- For additional visual assessment of the situation, they intended to add what they called a “robot helicopter”, which was basically a drone attached to the front top left of the cabin. Controlled from the inside of the vehicle, the robot helicopter could deliver real-time stereoscopic television images and information about the environment through sensors, although this device was not present in the final prototype.
- NASA engineers also developed a robotic arm which was mounted in the front of the vehicle. The robotic arm would have a load capacity of 600 lbs (272 kg), a utility tool to grab or cut through things, and several cameras to guide the crew member operating the arm from a workstation built in the vehicle’s cabin.
- Early drawings of the XHVR-1 prototype also show a bulldozer blade below the robotic arm, but this was not added to the final prototype.
- Culbertson’s team equipped the XHVR-1 with an air-conditioning overpressure system to cool down the crew (who would be wearing HAZMAT suits) and to help clean the air in case of toxins from the outside.
- Last but not least, they attached a suitlock docking mechanism to the XHVR-1. Patented in 1996 by Philip Culbertson, the suitlock docking mechanism allowed up to two crew members to slide in and out of the vehicle inside of their protective suits, avoiding their exposure to external contamination. For this, the XHVR-1 had special rear hatches known as suitports, onto which the protective suits were mounted. The crew could “climb” in and out of the suits as needed.
The fate of the XHVR-1
Thanks to all these features, the XHVR-1 was capable of handling nuclear, biological, and chemical hazards while keeping the crew safe at all times. The people responsible for the design of the XHVR-1 envisioned that the vehicle could be utilized in nuclear plant accidents and terrorist attacks, among other emergencies. Thus, it could have become a valuable resource for law enforcement agencies, public safety agencies, and fire departments.
The fact that the XHVR-1 was essentially a modified M577A3 tank was also convenient for the FMC Corporation —the company that built the M577A3s — because this APC model was already obsolete for military purposes at the time, so the FMC could have restarted the manufacturing of these tanks for these other uses.
But for some reason that NASA hasn’t publicly explained, the XHVR-1 project was canceled and the prototype built by Ames never went on operational use. The prototype was actually sent back to FMC, except for the robotic arm, which was removed. And later, the FMC sold it to the non-profit organization Eagle Field Foundation, which repainted it olive green and using it as an example of a vintage military medical vehicle in Eagle Field’s mobile museum.