​An outlandish design even in a film filled with otherwise outlandish designs, the Jawa Sandscrawler has an interesting story to it, owing its features to both NASA, as well as another science fiction film.


Eight dwarfs, or JAWAS, as they’re sometimes called, carry Artoo out of the canyon to a huge sandcrawler – a tank-like vehicle the size of a two-story house.

They place the robot in a small bin on one side of the crawler, and a mechanical arm promptly lifts the bin, dumping the unconscious Artoo into the back of the giant tractor. The filthy little Jawas scurry like rats up small ladders and enter the main cabin of the behemoth transport. Several windows light up in the cockpit area toward the front of the crawler followed by the loud scream of powerful engines. The enormous sandcrawler turns and lumbers off toward the magnificent twin suns, now slowly setting over a distant mountain range. [Scene 23, 1]

Part tank, part building, the Jawa sandcrawler draws a distinctive silhouette against the desert horizon of Tatooine. At once distinctly alien, yet perfectly at home.

As with several of the vehicles for the first film, the Jawa sandcrawler started life not as a concept drawing, but as one of the conceptual models made by Colin Cantwell, the 2001 model maker who was brought in to help sell the film to the studios. His version however had a radically different guise than the one that made it to the silver screen.

Sandcrawler front, by Colin Cantwell.

Sandcrawler front, by Colin Cantwell.

The rear of Colin Cantwell's sandcrawler.  Photo by Kristin DelValle .

The rear of Colin Cantwell's sandcrawler. Photo by Kristin DelValle.

Where some of the models built by Cantwell in those early days were simply updated as they went through the pre-production stages, the sandcrawler for whatever reason ended up receiving a complete overhaul at the hands of Ralph McQuarrie, very close to the final design in most respects.

First up are some particularly early sketches (lower right quadrant) in which the design is still obviously in progress, being seemingly less angular in its overall shape, and perhaps smaller as well, although its hard to tell.

Next up is a number of sketches, in which you should pay particular attention to the wheeled design, and keep it in mind as it will serve as a clue as to a potential origin design.

Ralph McQuarrie's initial sandcrawler designs.

“It was supposed to be a very large, old, rusty, and tracked vehicle,” McQuarrie says. “You had to climb up all the stairs to get in, and there were a lot of rooms in it, storage places. I envisioned this thing on the front with teeth to be part of a scoop that comes down with a hydraulic arrangement to pick up things, like a garbage truck.” [p75, 2]

Joe Johnston picked up the reins from McQuarrie.

“[Ralph McQuarrie] had done side views, and it was real long and streamlined. I thought that it could be higher and more awkward and rustier, kind of clumsy looking, so that influenced my redesign of the same.” [Joe Johnston, p75, 2]

Joe Johnston's redesign of McQuarrie's initial sketches.

Joe Johnston's redesign of McQuarrie's initial sketches.

Circa April 5, 1975, McQuarrie revised Cantwell’s sandcrawler design and illustrated the escape of the robots from the vehicle as described in the second draft. The sandcrawler has stalled because of falling rocks from the cliffs, and the Jawas are trying to figure out how to put the track back on the wheels. The vehicle Jawas use for storing their wares had originally been inspired by photographs of a NASA-designed rover built for exploring the terrain of alien planets (perhaps more like Cantwell’s model). The Jawas themselves are outgrowths of the “shell-dwellers” in Lucas’s THX 1138. [p75, 2]

The Jawa Sandcrawler, Filming Model (p76-77, Sculpting the Galaxy by Lorne Peterson).

So here it seems like we’ve found the source of inspiration for the sandcrawler, in ‘photographs of a NASA-designed rover’. Unfortunately, despite much searching and digging, I’ve so far been unable to find any NASA-designed vehicles that look much of anything like the sandcrawler. I asked Jonathan Rinzler, who wrote The Making of Star Wars about it:

Maybe it’s out there; but for now it seems the trail runs cold.

Or does it?

But what if the specificity of the ‘rover’ was misguiding? What if it was something else designed by NASA? Something big and lumbering; like the jawa sandcrawler itself? Something that also crawled, but not on sand? Meet the NASA Crawler Transporter.


Designed in the early 1960s, built in 1965 by Marion and put to use in 1967 for the first Saturn V rocket, the massive crawler transporters weigh in at around 6 million pounds and can carry twice their own weight. NASA built two of them, to the tune of $14 million dollars (60s dollars, that is), and they’re still in operation today, though with the retirement of the shuttle program, they’re getting themselves some well deserved rest. At a top speed of 2mph unloaded, and 1mph loaded, they’re even slower than the Sandcrawler they precursor.

So far, so good. But wait, there's more.

After all, this was neither the first, nor the last time McQuarrie used the crawler-like design. Here's a 'super tank' for The Empire Strikes Back, one of many designs discarded in favor of the War of the Worlds inspired walkers.

Lucas had met Ralph McQuarrie through two of his former classmates from USC, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, who in 1973, prior to pre-production on Star Wars, had attempted to get a their science fiction film Star Dancing off the ground. To help them conceptualize their film, they had hired Ralph McQuarrie, who at the time has worked mostly for Boing as a technical illustrator. Lucas had tagged along with Barwood and Robbins to see McQuarrie’s paintings for the film (which for whatever reason never made it beyond the conceptual stage), and the rest is history.

McQuarrie made five paintings[3] for the film, which featured an astronaut who discovered an initially deserted underground alien facility only to meet its returning inhabitants. One of the paintings McQuarrie finished before the project died out, was this somewhat familiar vehicle.

The Star Dancing explorer by Ralph McQuarrie, circa 1973.

Photos of a Nasa-designed rover, or concept paintings from a dead film project?

Star Wars isn’t lacking in distinctive designs, but the sandcrawler is certainly one of the most distinctive ones to come out of it, and has gone on to inspire several buildings, including the Lucasfilm Animation headquarters in Singapore.

The Lucasfilm Animation Headquarters in Singapore.
The Lucasfilm Animation Headquarters in Singapore.

As an added bonus, The Original Prop Blog has a thorough look at a supposed ‘original’ sandcrawler that went up for auction on eBay a few years ago, complete with exhaustive material from the various making of books.

  1. George Lucas. The Adventures of The Starkiller (episode one) - “The Star Wars”, January 28, 1975.

  2. J.W. Rinzler. The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. LucasBooks, April 24, 2007.

  3. All his work on Star Dancing is available in the fantastic The Art of Ralph McQuarrie.  ↩


John Berkey & The Mechanical Planet

Michael Heilemann

Psycho & Sanjuro

Michael Heilemann