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Shuttle Era: Booster Retrieval Ships
When most people think of the ships in NASA's fleet, they think of space shuttles that pierce the sky as they carry astronauts toward orbit.
But NASA has two sea-going ships -- the Liberty Star and Freedom Star -- that also stand ready on shuttle launch day.
Their mission is heading to sea to retrieve the solid rocket boosters that help propel the shuttle toward space.
Freedom Star Captain Mike Nicholas, United Space Alliance:
"My name is Mike Nicholas. I'm the captain of the Freedom Star. A typical crew that we carry is 24 people -- we've got ten crew and ten diver specialists and retrieval operations personnel."
While most eyes are still glued to the shuttle's ascent, the two ships positioned in the boosters' impact zone in the Atlantic Ocean are ready to begin their work.
"Generally for a space shuttle launch, we'll depart the port 24 hours in advance. It takes us roughly 12 to 15 hours to get off shore to our SRB impact area. And then we'll stand by, and what we'll do is out there we'll do surveillance work to keep other vessels out of our area basically so that when the launch goes, we have a window that the boosters can come in safely without any traffic being around. Once the launch goes off, we can actually visually see the boosters or we have our radar equipment that we can see them coming through the air. And generally they're as close as four miles from us, which is very close, and as far as 15 to 20 miles away."
Retrieving the boosters is a potentially dangerous operation and requires that the ship's crew and divers closely follow safety procedures as they work with the booster components, staying constantly aware of the ever-changing conditions around them.
"Weather conditions are a major factor because a lot of times you just have to pay attention to what the wind and the waves are doing and they'll dictate where you can actually position the vessel, putting people in the water, putting boats in the water, you have to give the ship a lee so that the boats can be launched in the water so that the personnel goes in safely. And then, the other particular challenge is when it's windy and seas are high there's usually a lot of current, meaning that the maneuvering of the vessel, it takes a lot of concentration to make the vessel do what you want it to do or stay where you want it to stay."
The first order of business is assessing the condition of the booster assigned to that ship, using both still and video photography.
After that, the divers go to work preparing the booster to be towed back to shore.
"So when we pull up to the SRBs, they're in the vertical mode, meaning that they are up and down, and usually you can see about 30 feet of it. So the rest of it is about 100 feet under water. To get the SRB in the horizontal position, our divers, they insert a diver operated plug, and then they take an air hose to it and blow air to it which then lifts it up out of the water and lays it over to what we call log mode so it's laying horizontal in the ocean. At that point, we'll hook up our tow cable to it and tow it about a quarter of a mile to three tenths of a mile, nautical miles, behind us.
The ships return to shore, entering through Port Canaveral where the boosters are brought along side the ships for the remainder of the trip back to Hangar AF at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
So what might have gone through the captain's mind when he and the Freedom Star crew returned the last booster to shore as the Space Shuttle Program draws to a close after 30 years of flights and 135 missions?
I think my thoughts about the last, very last space shuttle launch, just for myself, is that I'm very, very fortunate to have been a part of something that's very unique and very special."
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