Into the Gulf

It seems to be entirely appropriate that a vessel like ET-134 must first cross the Gulf of Mexico, a body of water rich in the history of exploration, in order to reach its launch site at Kennedy Space Center and make the exploration of space by the space shuttle crews possible; a sea voyage to make possible a space voyage.

From 2004, Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) image of the Gulf
of Mexico. Around the circumference of the Gulf, the outflow of several rivers is visible
in colorful swirls that are probably a mixture of sediment, dissolved organic matter,
and chlorophyll from algae and
phytoplankton in coastal waters. Credit: NASA/
Goddard Space Flight Center/SeaWiFS Project/ORBIMAGE

View all blog images in this Flickr gallery

Great explorers, mostly Spanish, came this way before. Ponce de Leon, Hernando Cortez, Fernandez de Cordoba, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Hernando De Soto are among the explorers who either crossed the Gulf to Mexico or sailed along its shores in search of new territory or riches. The French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle descended the Mississippi River via Illinois and discovered the Mississippi Delta and claimed what is now Louisiana for France.  The waters of the Gulf, like the St. Lawrence River to the north, have played a very significant role in making the exploration of the Americas possible, especially North America.

The Gulf of Mexico is the ninth largest body of water in the world; a playground for millions of vacationers each year and an important crossroads for trade and maritime commerce for the United States, Mexico and the northern tier countries of South America.  At any one moment will display several hundred tugs, tankers, freighters, passenger ships and privately owned pleasure craft sailing the Gulf or in port along its periphery.

The Gulf is actually a tiny inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, or an ocean basin pretty much surrounded by the North American continent and the island of Cuba. It is bounded on the northeast, north and northwest by the Gulf Coast of the United States, my stomping grounds for my entire adult life, on the southwest and south by Mexico, and on the southeast by Cuba. The shape of its basin is roughly an oval and is approximately 810 nautical miles (1,500 km) wide.  Almost half of the basin is relatively shallow waters, but its deepest waters are 14,383 ft (4,384 m) called the Sigsbee Deep, an irregular trough more than 300 nautical miles (550 km) long.

Aerial image of islands in the Mississippi Sound. Credit: NASA

Liberty Star and Pegasus and of course ET-134 passed outbound between Cat Island and West Ship Island and will cross the Gulf more or less on a direct path from Gulfport, Miss., to the Straits of Florida, steering around the Dry Tortugas Islands and Key West.  The weather ahead of us today is predicted to be good, with seas of 2–3 feet and winds generally out of the SSW at 10 knots.  We expect a quiet and uneventful passage at an average speed of 9 knots as the crew bends to a routine of performing its normal duties of running and maintaining the ship and resting when possible; routine duties performed by a ship underway by a crew in much the same way sailors have done in these waters for hundreds of years.

We passed West Ship Island to our east, home to beautiful beaches, via a local ferry from Gulfport, and home to Fort Massachusetts. The fort and its many siblings such as Fort Macomb, which we have already passed in the Intracoastal Waterway, and the fort system that we find along the length of the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard were envisioned to serve as a bulwark against enemy invasion fleets.  During the War of 1812 enemy fleets successfully deposited armies within striking distance of Baltimore and the nation’s capitol and in 1815 troops landed south of New Orleans, right on the doorstep of modern day Michoud Assembly Facility.

Construction of Fort Massachusetts began in June 1859 under supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers and by early 1861 the outside wall of the fort had taken shape.

In January 1861 Mississippi seceded from the Union, occupied the fort and precipitated one of the first actions of the Civil War in the state. On July 9, the Union ship Massachusetts came within range of the Confederate guns and a brief fight occurred, resulting in few injuries and little damage to either side. The action was the only military engagement in which Ship Island or the fort was ever directly involved.

Union forces occupied the island as a staging area for the Union forces’ successful capture of New Orleans in the spring of 1862. As many as 18,000 United States troops were stationed on Ship Island. The island’s harsh environment took its toll on many of the men. More than 230 Union troops eventually died and were buried on Ship Island during the Civil War. The bodies of many of these men were later reburied at Chalmette National Cemetery near New Orleans.

The Gulf of Mexico is literally strewn with history.  In 1492 only a short distance from the Gulf Spain’s Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina sailing under Christopher Columbus went ashore and began an incredible era of exploration of the Western Hemisphere.  Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese explorers came this way in the 1500s and beyond. Later, Spanish galleons loaded riches and treasure in Cartagena (modern Columbia), sailed for Spain aiming across the Gulf for passage either through the Florida Straits or the passages through the Leeward Islands, or perhaps skirting along the northern coast of South America, hoping to avoid storms, privateers or pirates.  

The Monsters of the Gulf
The Gulf is not considered particularly hostile most of the year.  But the Gulf is the feeding ground of the greatest breed of sea monster on Earth; monsters that literally rise from the surface feeding on the warm waters of late summer and early fall, pulling massive amounts of energy skyward like ocean-going demons. Throughout much of history, they remained unnamed. Today we remember and know their names very well. These are the hurricanes.

The English word for hurricanes was adopted from the Spanish word huracon which in turn was adopted from a similar word for storms used by the Arawak language of the Caribbean region. Spanish explorers, who knew well the dangers of sailing the north Atlantic, apparently were taken somewhat by surprise by the ferocity of storms in the Caribbean and Gulf and European explorers lost many valuable ships and sailors throughout the region. 

In recent years space explorers, NASA and international partner astronauts, on board the International Space Station, have provided hundreds of images of hurricanes from their position of relative safety some 200 miles overhead. Among those images is one of Hurricane Ike just about to hit the Texas and Louisiana coast, its massive Cyclops eye, staring back into space at the astronauts.

Hurricane Ike. Credit: NASA

Plowing their way across the mid Atlantic from the west coast of Africa as tropical depressions and later as tropical storms, hurricanes gather their strength, bide their time and spin up for the final dash to land.  They often turn north to die in the colder Atlantic; they often plow ahead into the Greater Antilles like Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, the Bahamas and Cuba, where they ravage the much too often ravaged. They may drive straight north into Florida proper or… they may spin their way into the Gulf, where their strength builds and towers to tens of thousands of feet of unbridled energy and then, when ready, advance relentlessly to the coast.

Waiting on shore is a host of vulnerable victims including the coastal cities of Mexico, Corpus Christi, Galveston, Houston, New Orleans, Lake Charles, Biloxi, Gulf Shores, Pensacola, Mobile, and cities east along the coast to Tampa/St. Petersburg. 

Three NASA facilities lie in their possible path; the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where space missions are controlled; the Stennis Research Center in Mississippi where space shuttle main engines and propulsion systems are tested, and the Michoud Assembly Facility in East New Orleans where external tanks like ET-134 are assembled.  In 2008 Michoud was narrowly missed by Hurricane Gustav and Johnson Space Center was damaged by Hurricane Ike. NASA does a great deal of planning to be ready for these monsters and to protect its employees.

In 1900 a hurricane came ashore with no warning in Galveston and killed 6,000. In 2008, Ike took more lives in Galveston, but not near as many as in 1900.  Carla hit Texas in 1961 with 140 mile-per-hour winds; Camille hit Mississippi in 1969 with 190 mph winds; Frederic rolled over Alabama in 1979, smashed up Gulf Shores and knocked down my television antenna in Tuscaloosa 300 miles from the coast; Opal hit the Florida panhandle in 1995 with 115 mph winds; Andrew hit Louisiana in 1992 with 115 mph winds; Ivan hit Alabama and the Florida panhandle in 2004 with 120 mph winds. In 2005 Dennis hit the Florida panhandle with 120 mph winds; Katrina hit Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005 with 125 mph winds and caused the deaths of 2,000 and massive damage; and also in 2005, Rita followed Katrina to hit Texas and Louisiana. Depending on the source, since 1900 hurricanes have killed 9,000 and taken hundreds of billions in property on the Gulf Coast.

Two of the publics’ guardians providing advance warning against hurricanes are located nearby along the Gulf Coast, the United States Air Force 53rd Weather Recon Squadron “Hurricane Hunters” is located at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aircraft operations center is located at MacDill Air Force base, Tampa, Fla.

What does Liberty Star do if a hurricane is on the horizon? Liberty Star quickly gets out of the way or does not sail at all — Liberty Star with its VIP precious cargo on board Pegasus will take no chances with the untamed and unpredictable monsters of the Gulf.

Meet the Crew: Liberty Star

Let’s meet two of the members. We’ll meet other crewmembers in the coming days.

Dan Dugan, Assistant Engineer, Assistant Port Engineer

Let’s talk with one of the Liberty Star’s engineers, Assistant Engineer Dan Dugan, 44, of Valley Stream, N.Y.  Dan is serving as relief engineer on board Liberty Star for this trip. He is an engineering graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.  Dan also holds a Masters Degree in Business Administration from Webster University.

Dan has some 22 years service in the marine industry sailing onboard numerous types of vessels, including tankers for Vulcan Carriers; the MV Stuyvesant, a dredging vessel; casino boats; and the USNS Range Sentinel based at Port Canaveral, Fla.

Working in Liberty Star’s rather warm engine room can be pretty demanding. He is responsible for maintenance and operation of all the ship’s main propulsion, electrical and auxiliary systems.

What does he like most about serving on Liberty Star? The open sea; being part of the space program and its many different missions such as external tank tows, and booster recovery operations; and support for U.S. Navy and NOAA research missions.

Seemingly, every member of the ship likes outdoor activities in their off-time, and Dan is no exception. When off-duty, he relaxes with his family, knocks out the much loved “honey do lists,” coaches wrestling, plays golf and runs. He currently lives in Merritt Island, Fla.

John Jacobs, Able Bodied Seaman

Able Seaman John Jacobs (Jake), 40, one of the first members of the crew I met, has his home close by the Kennedy Space Center, in Cocoa Beach, Fla.  He is a graduate of North Carolina State University. His major was writing and editing and his minor was physical science. He also studied at the Chapman School of Seamanship, Marine Surveyor Curriculum. He is a veteran of 17 years in the marine industry and has worked on various types of vessels.

An Able Seaman is an unlicensed member of the deck department of a merchant ship. John may find himself working as a watch stander, a day worker or a combination of those roles.

At sea, as watch stander his duties may include standing watch as helmsman and lookout. The helmsman is required to maintain a steady course, properly execute all rudder orders and communicate using navigational terms relating to heading and steering. A watch stander may be called upon to stand security-related watches, such as a gangway watch or anchor watch while the ship is not underway.

His specific duties on Liberty Star include general maintenance; navigation; safety and security watches; small boat operator; emergency preparedness; and diver.

When not working on Liberty Star or not at sea, John likes hobbies that take him back to sea, such as sailing and surfing, but he also enjoys running and spending time with family.

He’s been serving on board Liberty Star since 2008.

Going Down To The Sea

I have always enjoyed the sea and I have never passed up an opportunity to go to sea that I can remember. In the days before the families of servicemen started traveling by air to unite with fathers and mothers in exotic places like Japan, the Philippines, Guam, Okinawa and Hawaii, military families traveled by sea on converted World War II troop ships. In 1956 when I was eight years old, my mother, brother, sister and I went on board the USNS Gaffey at the Oakland Naval Yard, slipped our mooring and churned across San Francisco Bay. We celebrated one of those really neat moments in the life of a family when we sailed under that most famous of famous American icons, the Golden Gate Bridge.

USNS Gaffey carried military personnel and families from the west coast to bases
throughout the Far East during the 1950s and 1960s.  Gaffey was sunk as a target
ship in 2000. Credit: U.S. Navy 

We were outbound from the west coast for Okinawa and I don’t recall the Gaffey stopping anywhere, but my sister says we stopped at Yokohama, Japan. My brother and I turned the troopship into a wonderful playground. During our 14-day voyage we helped exhaust the ship’s store of ice cream, courtesy of the sailors and stewards who ran the ice cream station and generally made a nuisance of ourselves exploring the Gaffey’s secret passages and upper decks. Surprisingly, Gaffey lasted until the year 2000 when she was sunk as a missile target. Poor Gaffey.

Dad had flown ahead of us to Okinawa as he was an Air Force intelligence officer and was needed way ahead of us. He was at the dock to meet us. It was good to see Dad.  

Two years later we returned to the states on another troopship, the USS Mann, via Tokyo, the Aleutian Islands and Seattle. Another fun voyage, but this trip toned down with tragedy. A baby became seriously ill and a Navy float plane, a PBY, flew out a medical team to care for the infant. Right in front of the passengers of our ship the PBY crashed on landing in the sea and her crew had to be rescued by our ship. Unfortunately, the doctor broke his leg transferring from the crashed aircraft to our ship’s launch. Of greater misfortune the baby died and was buried at sea the next day while the entire ship stood silent. The partially floating plane, now a hazard to navigation, was sunk by gunfire that evening. 

USS Mann. Credit: U.S. Navy

I had the good fortune to sail on two other very short sea voyages while serving in the Army. As a very sleepy and ravenous Ranger student I paddled in a rubber raft with ten other guys down the Yellow River in the panhandle of Florida out to a Navy LCM, Landing Craft Medium ( no amenities), in Pensacola’s East Escambia Bay. We loaded our rafts on the LCM and she took us out into the Gulf of Mexico past Santa Rosa Island to drop us off at sea for a short paddle to shore and some fun night training in the swamps of Eglin Air Force Base.  Much later, while serving with the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai Peninsula, I had the pleasure of a short trip in the Gulf of Aqaba on an American built, Italian crewed mine sweeper. There were real amenities on this ship…Italian cooking!!

These days I sail on fun ships with lots of amenities and silly names like Fantasy, Splendor, Paradise and Imagination and dream about ships with minimal amenities and great names like Yorktown, Lexington, PT-109, Iowa, Missouri, Intrepid, Bainbridge, Bon Homme Richard, President, Constitution, Congress, Wahoo and especially brave Heermann, and Johnson, oh, and of course, Kon Tiki. 

NASA has a small fleet of its own. I first saw NASA’s booster recovery ships in the fall of 1991 while driving through Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and immediately decided I wanted to sail in some capacity with NASA’s two solid rocket booster recovery ships. They are beautiful working ships. They have sharp crews and they have many important missions to perform for NASA. They have great names; Liberty Star and Freedom Star.

We’re sailing with Liberty Star from Gulfport, Miss. to Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

Welcome Aboard Liberty Star!

It’s mid-afternoon and we’re onboard the Liberty Star. Our transfer from the Pegasus barge to Liberty Star was accomplished via Gulfport pilot vessel.

Liberty Star and her sister ship Freedom Star, were built in 1980 and 1981, respectively, by Atlantic Marine Shipyard, Fort George, near Jacksonville, FL, and are owned by NASA and operated for the space program under contract by United Space Alliance of Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The primary mission of Liberty Star and Freedom Star is to recover the reusable solid rocket boosters used to propel the space shuttle to orbit. Liberty Star is commanded by Captain Mike Nicholas of Merritt Island, Fla., a 22 year veteran of work at sea.

In preparation for sailing with Liberty Star I read the entire 23 volumes of “Master and Commander,” by the well known sea faring author Patrick O’Brian (just kidding; I actually read the set some years ago). However, I do know that the front of the ship is the bow; the rear of the ship is the stern; the right side is starboard and the left side of a ship is no longer larboard, but port. Liberty Star has no sailing masts, no marines, no gun ports and much to my consternation, no 24 pounders, no grapeshot and no round shot.  But Liberty Star is no sissy and she is packed with mission capability. 

Liberty Star is propelled by two General Motors diesel engines turning two six-foot diameter propellers with controllable pitch which provide excellent response time and maneuverability. She can also be maneuvered by a 425 horsepower White Gill water jet thruster in the stern and a 425 horsepower Schottel bow thruster. These systems are particularly valuable in maneuvering the ship without the use of the main propellers where the ship is based, in Florida’s Banana River.The Banana River is home to a large manatee population and USA goes to great lengths to avoid injuring the lumbering, harmless giants. These thrusters are essential during solid rocket booster recovery operations by permitting divers to work near the ship much more safely. 

For communications and navigation, Liberty Star has Kongsberg dynamic position system and joy stick control, X-band and S-band radars, global positioning system, handheld VHF radios and GPS units, digital video and recording systems, voice and data satellite communication capability, VHF automatic direction finding, high frequency single-side band radios, electronic chart plotters, night vision and Sea Area-3 Global Maritime Distress Safety System consoles.

When recovering solid rocket boosters off the Florida coast, Liberty Star carries a crew of about 10, plus 14 additional personnel: Crane operators, technicians, and divers. She has a captain, chief mate, second mate, bosun’s mate, cook, chief engineer, assistant engineer, and three Able Bodied seamen. Liberty Star has a phenomenal cruising range of 6,000 miles and a cruising speed of 15 knots, or 17 miles per hour.  She is 176 feet long, 37 feet in the beam (greatest width), and has a draft of 12 feet. She boasts a cruising endurance of about 30 days. Her draft of 12 feet is a little too much to permit her to begin towing the Pegasus barge from Michoud Assembly Facility due to the shallow waters of the Intracoastal Waterway.

All gear on deck, including the crane, is bolt-on, bolt-off. For this trip the aft deck is stripped of virtually all equipment. For booster recovery, she carries a large Enhanced Diver Operated Plug to insert in the floating boosters to permit inflation and towing, an air cooled two stage compressor for dewatering the boosters, conventional and nitrox compressors breathing air for the divers, a four person hyperbaric chamber for diver emergencies and training, four parachute reels each with 8,000 lbs pull, a 1,200 foot air hose for booster dewatering, two Ambar work boats, a 7,500 lb deck crane, booster frustrum recovery equipment, and most recently a doppler, phased array radar for monitoring space shuttle launches.

Liberty Star is normally moored at Hangar AF on the Banana River at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Several dozen manatees inhabit the dock area of the recovery ships, enjoying warm, shallow waters and the recovery ships are very careful to take all precautions necessary to avoid hitting them. The manatees also share their territory with the local and prolific alligator population.  Liberty Star and Freedom Star leave Cape Canaveral Air Force Station about 24-36 hours before the launch of the space shuttle.  Before the space shuttle launch the sister ships arrive in the expected booster splash down area, located about 140 miles northeast of Kennedy Space Center, and prepare for recovery operations.

The two solid rocket boosters provide power for the shuttle’s ascent. When the boosters are spent, they are jettisoned (at two minutes, seven seconds after liftoff) and fall to the sea as the shuttle’s main engines finish lifting the spacecraft out of the Earth’s atmosphere and into orbit. At six minutes and 44 seconds into the flight, the 165,000-pound boosters under three massive 136-foot-diameter parachutes have slowed their descent speed to about 62 miles per hour and they splash down in a predetermined area. Liberty Star or Freedom Star power toward the impact area in the Atlantic Ocean, recover the boosters and tow them back to Hangar AF at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

When not called upon to support booster recovery operations or towing the Pegasus barge from Gulfport, Miss., the Liberty Star and Freedom Star may be found supporting research activities of the U.S. Navy or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The crews also train to be ready to recover the space shuttle astronauts at sea should that contingency ever arise.

By way of comparison, Liberty Star weighs in, when soaking wet, at about 1,100 tons and is similar in overall size and appearance to a medium class cutter, such as USCGC Reliance of the U.S. Coast Guard, weighing in soaking wet at 1,127 tons. 

More about Liberty Star and her crew to come later…

Liberty Star Extends Tow Line to Compensate for Sea Conditions and Winds

12:30 p.m., Eastern — Liberty Star Extends Tow Line to Compensate for Sea Conditions and Winds

Past Cat island Liberty Star began extending its tow line from a more or less ideal length of approximately 500 feet in calm waters  to about 1,000 feet.  Current winds are easterly 14-21 knots or about 16-24 miles per hour and seas are running high enough to warrant a longer tow line reducing the shock, wear and tear on  Liberty Star, Pegasus and the towline. Captain Mike Nicholas began the process to pay out the additional tow line at about 1230 pm and completed the extension to 1,000 feet about 1:15 pm Eastern.   Throughout the payout procedure the crew on the bridge monitor a variety of data overseeing the tow line extension including distance of payout, tension on the tow line, tow line depth below the surface, and speed of the deploy of the additional line.   Pegasus’ flat bow makes for a somewhat more difficult towing operation in open water in comparison to barges with a pronounced bow, but the flat bow is better for towing in inland waters.  Liberty Star is now making 9.1 knots or 12 miles per hour.

Pegasus Under Way With Liberty Star Into the Gulf of Mexico

Dawn comes at sea while Pegasus was positioned just south of Gulfport, Miss.
Credit: NASA  
View all “Sailing With NASA’ blog photos in this Flickr gallery

Pegasus arrived off the Port of Gulfport, Miss., early this morning at about 7 a.m. CDT, but was asked to remain at sea and await passage of a Gulfport-bound freighter, the Bernado Quinnada, flagged in Nassau.  While waiting at sea, Pegasus was passed by no less than the freighter, a Coast Guard cutter,  six shrimp boats and several barges hauling fuel and grain. A very busy crossing here at Gulfport.

Once cleared to enter port, Angelica E and Emmett Eymard fired up their engines and towed Pegasus into port for a fast transfer to the Liberty Star. Upon entering the port proper, Pegasus was turned completely around facing south out of the port. The blogging passengers, Mick Speer and myself, were quickly shifted from Pegasus to a local pilot vessel and then just as quickly were placed on board the Liberty Star. Introductions went fast as the crew bent to the job of hooking up to the bridle of the Pegasus with the tow line, an evolution that was completed in only a few minutes by the obviously veteran and experienced crew.

This series of images shows the several steps the crew of Pegasus and Liberty Star
undergo to attached the Pegasus bridle and the towing line of the Liberty Star. The
entire process to complete the hook up was accomplished smoothly and only a very
few minutes. Credit: NASA

Able Bodied Seaman John Jacobs of Cocoa Beach, Fla., right next to Kennedy Space Center, performed the all important task of attaching the Pegasus bridle to the tow line of the Liberty Star. “This particular operation to secure the Pegasus bridle and Liberty Star tow line went like clockwork. It was a normal and well done hookup performed by a very experienced group of seaman,” said Jacobs.

Liberty Star is several miles out of Gulfport now, heading south toward the channel between West Ship Island and Cat Island — outbound for the Gulf of Mexico.

Pegasus Moves Along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to the Mississippi Sound

Immediately upon leaving Michoud Assembly Facility this afternoon, we entered the Intracoastal Waterway and headed for Gulfport, Miss. Two commercial tug boats hooked up our tow from Pegasus and without fan fare we were off on the first leg of our trip to the Kennedy Space Center. We headed east in the somewhat confined limits of the waterway in about 15 feet of water and took in the local sights along the banks. I’ve crissed-crossed the Intracoastal Waterway almost all my life, but until now I’ve never traveled along it; another first for this trip.

Seen from space in 1995: Greater New Orleans and areas north of Lake
Pontchartrain in southeastern Louisiana. Credit: NASA

The Intracoastal Waterway is a 3,000-mile waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. Some lengths consist of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, and sounds; others are man-made canals. It provides a navigable route along its length without many of the hazards of travel on the open sea. If you’ve been a tourist in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, the Carolinas, Maryland or Virginia, you’ve crossed the waterway many times.

A view of a portion of the Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana. Credit: NASA

The waterway runs for most of the length of the Eastern Seaboard, from its unofficial northern terminus at the Manasquan River in New Jersey, where it connects with the Atlantic Ocean at the Manasquan Inlet, to Brownsville, Texas.

The creation of the Intracoastal Waterway was authorized by the United States Congress in 1919. It is maintained by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Federal law provides for the waterway to be maintained at a minimum depth of 12 feet for most of its length. The waterway consists of two non-contiguous segments: the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, extending from Brownsville, Texas to Carrabelle, Florida, and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, extending from Key West, Florida to Norfolk, Virginia.

The Intracoastal Waterway has a good deal of commercial activity; barges haul petroleum, petroleum products, foodstuffs, building materials, and manufactured goods and it seems space ships, as well.  It is also used extensively for recreation. Numerous inlets connect the Gulf of Mexico with the Intracoastal Waterway.

Early in our trip we pass two waterways known as passes or inlets that intersect the Intracoastal Waterway and connect the Gulf and Lake Pontchartrain. Each of these waterways has its own silent guardian. 

The Sentinels: Fort Macomb at Chef Menteur Pass and Fort Pike at Rigolets
The first pass is Chef Menteur Pass, a short water route connecting the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Pontchartrain. An earlier fort at the site was called Fort Chef Menteur. The current brick fort was built in 1822, and renamed “Fort Wood” in 1827, and renamed again, Fort Macomb in 1851. Both forts were envisioned to keep pesky enemy fleets out of Lake Pontchartrain and hence the shores of New Orleans.

The fort was occupied by Confederate troops early in the American Civil War, and taken rather quickly without a fight by the Union in 1862. The fort and its land are now owned by the State of Louisiana.

The similar three sided, but better preserved Fort Pike is situated some 10 miles away at the Rigolets Inlet and is open to visitors.

Leaving the confines of the narrow waterway we pass into the Mississippi Sound.

The Mississippi Sound is an open body of water that runs east-west along the coast from Waveland, Miss., to the Dauphin Island Bridge , Ala., a distance of about 90 miles. We will travel only about half that distance in the Sound. The Sound is bordered on its southern edge by the barrier islands — Cat, Ship, Horn, Petit Bois and Dauphin Islands — which are part of the National Park Service’s Gulf Islands National Seashore. Those islands separate the sound from the Gulf of Mexico.

Large portions of the Mississippi Sound reach depths of about 20 feet. Part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway traverses the sound with a project depth of 12 ft. The waterway, maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is designed for towboat and barge traffic. Most of its route through the sound is merely an imaginary line through water whose depth exceeds the project depth. A section west of Cat Island and the portion north of Dauphin Island rely on dredged channels marked by aids to navigation maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Deepwater ports along the Sound include Gulfport, Miss., and Pascagoula, Miss. Dredged ship channels running basically north-south connect those ports to the Gulf of Mexico, running between pairs of the barrier islands.

Gulfport and More of Katrina
In the summer of 2008, I stopped by the Port of Gulfport to observe the transfer of Pegasus from the tug boats to the Liberty Star. The transfer went much faster than I anticipated, taking only about 20 minutes. Before I could count to 100, Liberty Star had snagged the tow from the commercial tug boats and was chugging out of port into the Mississippi Sound and on to the Gulf of Mexico.

Katrina’s Category 4 hurricane force winds were observed by NASA’s QuikSCAT
satellite on August 29, 2005, just before she made landfall. Credit: NASA/JPL

 Whereas New Orleans was essentially brushed by Katrina in 2005, the Port of Gulfport was hit head on. The storm surge in the Gulfport area was relentless, 20 feet above normal sea levels and pushed well inland taking everything in its path. The Port of Gulfport lost warehousing and hundreds of sea-land vans filled with poultry and foodstuffs. So much salt water was deposited inland that it destroyed a large swath of Mississippi forest; so much so, that the loss of forest in Mississippi is one of the largest in the history of our country.

During my 2008 visit to Gulfport I stayed overnight at the Marriot Hotel across the street from the Port of Gulfport. During breakfast the hotel master cook came out to talk and ask how we had liked our meal. The meal was great. I learned the cook had lost her father to Katrina and our waitress had lost her husband — both from broken hearts after Katrina. They were not among the 2,000 Katrina victims, but they should be.

Pegasus Passes Chef Mentur Pass — Approaching Rigolets Inlet

10:30 p.m. Central Time

Pegasus is fast (5 miles per hour) approaching the Rigolets Inlet. Upon reaching the Rigolets, Pegasus will be towed/pushed south into the eastern edge of Lake Borgne and then on into the Mississippi Sound proper. A 871 Detroit Diesel located below the crew quarters drones steadily, now providing all electrical power on board — internal lighting for the crew and electrical appliances, as well as external running lights required for safe waterborne operations. 

A few minutes ago a fast-moving, high-riding fuel barge being pushed by a tug boat rapidly overtook Pegasus and disappeared down the Intracoastal Waterway. Another barge is moving toward us from the east. Lots of traffic tonight; exciting stuff! Tow cables snap occasionally against the tow bridle, caused when the tug boat slides from side-to-side to maintain its forward progress. Half the crew is sleeping, resting up for night watches that begin at midnight and 3 a.m.

The crew is sustained tonight by a hearty, piping hot chili packed with Ro-tel diced tomatoes and ; pinto/kidney/chili beans…cooked down earlier and eaten all evening, courtesy of this-blogger-turned-cook.

Aarg! Aarg! On to the Mississippi Sound!

Life on Board Pegasus: Keeping ET Safe and Sound

Life on board Pegasus is a mixture of work, mainly checks and servicing of machinery; monitoring the status of the VIP, ET-134 in this case, monitoring the status of the towing operation and filling in the day with opportunities for exercise and relaxing. 

The total floor space of the crew quarters is something like living in an RV (with somewhat higher ceilings). Trappings are non existent; the basics for preparing food, personal hygiene and sleeping bunks are provided and would make any Spartan soldier used to sleeping on rocks more than comfortable.

Above the crew quarters is an area equivalent to a foredeck, open to the sea, where large and heavy, linked chain lie on deck waiting to be hooked up to the tow line, whether provided by the tug boats or the Liberty Star or Freedom Star.

Above the foredeck is the bridge; a fully enclosed operations center permitting monitoring the status of the towing operations, monitoring ET-134’s safe and happy transit via video and observation of the sea; much smaller than Liberty Star; with fewer electronics.

Once under way a member of the crew stands watch at all times throughout the six day voyage, moving throughout the barge checking running lights, machinery and bilges, the lowest point on the barge, and of course ET.

Behind the crew quarters is the cavernous cargo deck area housing ET-134. The cargo bay or deck is more than sufficient to house ET-134’s 154 foot-length, 27 foot-diameter, and 58,000 lbs. Vibration incurred during the transit is recorded throughout the trip, and analyzed after arriving at Kennedy Space Center. 

ET-134 is no longer entirely residing its original mobile transporter in quite the same way it arrived on deck. It actually is now suspended or mounted on four large pedestals lifting ET off the transporters’ four large wheel assemblies, but at the same time attached at three points to the transporters upper arms and rear structure. This permits ET to ride the seas and absorb motion just like Pegasus; no shifting to port or starboard, fore or aft.  ET is taking the second best voyage of its life; waiting for its flight into space.

Meet the Pegasus Crew

I’m getting to know the crew of the Pegasus barge now and sitting down to learn what it’s like to care for and voyage with the Very Important Passengers (VIPs) of these seaborne trips from Michoud Assembly Facility to Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

No, the VIP is not the blogging public affairs officer. The VIP is one of the most pampered, carefully assembled, machined, hand-crafted, and handsome external tanks ever built that fuel the space shuttle’s thirsty main engines. The VIP behind us on the deck of the Pegasus is ET-134.  This tank sails under the care of Pegasus’ four-person barge crew and in time, in early 2010, it will fly into space.  ET-134 voyages over the sea with Pegasus in good company.

Meet The Pegasus Crew

Richard J. Gager Jr., Boatswain, Lead Crewman on Pegasus

Boatswain Richard Gager (Rick), 52, was born in Newburgh, NY.  Newburgh is near the Intersection of Interstates 84 and 87 and just north of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on the Hudson.

He grew up in Houston Texas, graduated James Madison High and joined the U.S. Coast Guard right out of high school.

Richard retired after 20 years in the U.S Coast Guard as a Chief Boatswains Mate (E-7) with qualifications as Officer in Charge Ashore and Afloat , and as Under Way Officer of the Deck on board a U.S. Coast Guard harbor tug, the USCGC Capstan, three inland construction tenders; the USCGC Axe, USCGC Anvil, and USCGC Wedge. The Wedge was later converted to a river buoy tender where Rick served as the vessel’s Executive Petty Officer.

During his Coast Guard career, he served in Mobile, Ala.; Corpus Christi, Texas; Destin, Fla.; the Washington, D.C. area; New Orleans, La.; Demopolis, Ala.; and New Smyrna Beach, Fla. Also, Rick is a qualified Search & Rescue/Law Enforcement Boat Coxswain  and a graduate of the USCG Maritime Law Enforcement School. 

On board Pegasus, Rick is Lead Crewmen (Boatswain).

When not herding external tanks between Kennedy Space Center and Michoud Assembly Facility, Rick likes riding his Harley with his wife and generally working around the house.

B. H. Conway, Able Bodied Seaman

Pegasus AB Seaman Bernard Conway (Skip), a native New Yorker, says he is tied at the hip to the sea.  His decades of waterborne work have not diminished his love of all things aquatic as he describes himself straight forward as “always a Long Island waterman at heart.”  In the early 1980’s he relocated from New England to the Space Coast in the fishing industry and eventually found him plying the waters of the Indian River Lagoon, with a ring-side seat of many spectacular shuttle launches.

Other opportunities and a growing family, led Skip to seize the chance to go “tugging” as a tanker man with a large fuel and barge business.

In 1997, he joined USA’s marine operations as a crewmember on board the Liberty Star’s sister ship the Freedom Star. Skip now finds himself assigned to the Pegasus, where he serves as an Able Bodied Seaman.

What does he like about the life at sea?  He replies, “the daily sunrises and settings never fail to thrill me.” Skip has an extensive collection of photos (including the elusive “green flash”) to prove it. What’s a green flash? Here’s what Wikipedia says:

“Green flashes and green rays are optical phenomena that occur shortly after sunset or before sunrise, when a green spot is visible, usually for no more than a second or two, above the sun, or a green ray shoots up from the sunset point. Green flashes are actually a group of phenomena stemming from different causes, and some are more common than others. Green flashes can be observed from any altitude (even from an aircraft). They are usually seen at an unobstructed horizon, such as over the ocean, but are possible over cloud-tops and mountain-tops as well.”

Well! You do learn something every day!

Time away from work for Skip is mostly spent composing, recording, and performing his original music. 

David Harris, Pegasus Engineer

Dave is a unique member of the seafaring crew — he is a former U.S. Army paratrooper (1984-1988) with some 45 parachute jumps mostly from C-130 and C-141 Air Force transports and Army UH-1H Huey helicopters with the “All American,”  82nd Airborne Division.  Dave served as a small vehicle mechanic in the parachute rigger company of the 407th Supply and Transportation Battalion at Ft. Bragg, NC, Airborne!

Dave, 46, is a native of Toledo, Ohio and currently lives in Titusville, Fla., nearby the Kennedy Space Center. 

When asked how he transitioned from airborne operations to seaborne operations he said that after leaving the Army in 1988 he started in logistics operations at the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center working with stacking Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) and in 1994 transitioned to marine operations as a SRB retrieval diver.

Today, Dave serves as the marine engineer of Pegasus with responsibilities for all mechanical and machinery operations. He assists with deck operations during external tank delivery operations and at home base assists with SRB disassembly technical support and SRB retrieval.

When not on the job Dave likes to, relax with family, play with his grandson and work around the house and yard. Airborne!

Jim Harrington, Ordinary Seaman

Let’s meet some more of the horsepower of the Pegasus. Jim Harrington, 51, was raised in Scotts Hill, Tennessee (population of 150). That’s halfway between Memphis and Nashville. Jim grew up with no running water or electricity and says about his early upbringing, “if you didn’t grow it or catch it, you didn’t eat!” Jim’s family later moved to the Chicago area, where he graduated from Crete-Monee High School in Crete, Ill. 

After high school Jim joined the U.S. Navy, ultimately serving in the submarine service for nine and one half years. Jim served on the submarine USS Thomas Alva Edison SSBN 610 & submarine USS Henry Clay SSBN 618, both were “boomers” or ballistic missile subs, as a Navigation Electronics Technician 1st Class.

While on shore duty and still in the Navy, stationed at the Naval Ordinance Test Unit Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, he enjoyed working in an electronics shop which permitted him to go to sea often with the naval test unit.

After serving in the Navy Jim joined the maritime operations team that services the NASA Solid Rocket Booster recovery ships, working for USA. 

Jim has now served 21 years in USA Marine Operations in a variety of jobs including retrieval diver, deck supervisor, and as crew member on Freedom Star and Liberty Star.

Currently working as a marine electrical technician, he holds marine credentials as a Qualified Member Engine Department, Junior Engineer and Ordinary Seaman. He supports Solid Rocket Booster Recovery operations, booster disassembly, external tank tow operations, and marine operations supporting NOAA and the Navy.

When not on the job, Jim enjoys boating, scuba diving, fishing, archery, hunting, being with family and Harley riding.

Dennis Loggins, Able Bodied Seaman

Dennis is not on this particular trip, but since he is regular member of the Pegasus crew he wants everyone to know the care and happy voyage of external tanks is his top working priority. 

Dennis, 35, is from Merritt Island, Fla., nearby the Kennedy Space Center. He has attended college at Seminole Community College and is currently completing coursework and licensing through the Maritime Professional Training Institute, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Twenty one years on the water on everything from commercial fishing vessels to working for cruise lines to dockside repairs and recreational sport fishing, has honed his maritime skills and increased his interests in the sea.

Dennis’ duties and responsibilities on board Pegasus are to maintain overall seaworthiness, handling lines, general maintenance and repairs, and making tow.

When asked what he likes about the seaborne life-style he said, “I truly enjoy the excitement and vastness of the open water.  I also enjoy the many opportunities to learn about and observe the sea made available by serving on these ships.” 

When not on the job as shepherd of external tanks to Kennedy Space Center, he likes to spend time hunting, fishing and time with his family.