Monday, 11 July 2011

Booster recovery

A special water cannon salute welcomed the NASA tow ship Liberty Star as it cruised into Port Canaveral on a hot Sunday afternoon with the Shuttle's right solid rocket booster in tow. We watched and took pictures from Jetty Pier alongside fishermen and hundreds of onlookers as the giant 'sea slug' slid past.

The twin reusable solid rocket boosters helped propel Atlantis on the 135th and final Space Shuttle flight and after each launch the boosters are recovered in the ocean after being jettisoned some two minutes into the flight.

The water canon tribute was put on specially to mark the end of the programme - but the sister ship Freedom Star missed out on the special welcome after suffering engine problems at sea which meant it only arrived back into port under cover of darkness at around midnight.

NASA and manufacturer ATK off-load boosters at Hangar AF at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. There, the boosters are put in stands and engineers and technicians make certain they are safe for workers to handle.

Initial post-flight inspections are done and then the boosters receive the ultimate pressure-washing - a 'hydrolasing' process that removes thermal protection system foam from the rockets.

For all Shuttle missions the various segments of each booster are recombined in different configurations. The specific combination was kind of special for STS-135 as the boosters included segments from Shuttle flight, STS-26 (the first return-to-flight after the Challenger tragedy), STS-71 (Atlantis’ first docking to the Mir space station), STS-101 (Atlantis’ first ISS docking), STS-114 (the second return-to-flight after the loss of Columbia).

By around 2 pm on Sunday afternoon most of the media who had been photographing the first SRB coming in from the open sea at Jetty Park were encamped in the ‘Fish Lips’ ocean front restaurant for welcome refreshment.

Myself, Andy Green and Japanese journalist Kanoko Nakashima had not long joined them and just ordered our burgers when there was a sudden scramble from the others to pay and go.

Liberty Star, with the booster now firmly lashed alongside, had appeared in the channel right below the balcony where we were all sitting on its way to the Canaveral lock and the final stage of its journey home.

We elected to remain and eat our meal, with the knowledge that we’d likely get the chance to see the second booster’s trip through the lock gates, which separate the salty Atlantic from the freshwater Banana river, later or the next day.

To the sightseers and photographers at the lock all seemed to have gone according to plan. The first booster was delivered to ATK and the second would now make the journey early on Monday morning.

It was only when Andy and I arrived at the lock gates around 7 am the next day and started chatting to lock leader Michael Mannhardt that we learned the back end of the first booster had  hit the side of the lock and been damaged as it was manoeuvred out.

This morning the rest of the media were waiting further up to first catch shots of the combination as it approached the lock system through a lifting road bridge, so we'd had an exlcusive first insight into what had happened.

Mike told us that the accident was due to a sand bar caused by the deep water drop off at the lock exit which, although it had recently been excavated from eight to 13 feet, could still present a problem to some vessels.

As a result - and because the Freedom Star with the second booster was carrying excess fuel which made it lower in the water - NASA decided to instigate a small boat ‘handover’ instead.

Freedom Star would bring the booster into the top end of the lock and then the booster would be detached and towed through and out of the other end by three Zodiac inflatable and passed to Liberty Star.

Though the exercise was not unique in the history of the Shuttle programme it made for a much  more dramatic finale and photo opportunity for this normally straight forward aspect of recovery.

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