Into the Florida Straits

The Straits of Florida, Florida Straits, or Florida Strait is a 100-mile strait located south-southeast of Florida, and is generally accepted to be the area between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, and between the Florida Keys and Cuba. The strait carries the Florida Current, the beginning of the Gulf Stream, from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic. (By the way, a strait is a thin, navigable channel of water that joins two larger navigable bodies of water.)

Florida, seen during space shuttle mission STS-95 on Oct. 31, 1998. Credit: NASA

The history of exploration of the Americas is strewn everywhere here as well. Off to the south some 70 miles away is the Island of Cuba; a major point of entry to the Western Hemisphere and base of operations for early Spanish explorers and ships returning across the Atlantic to Spain. To our north are the Florida Keys.

The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first recorded sailing through the straits in 1513. Many more Spanish ships came later.

In 1622, twenty-eight heavily laden ships left Havana for Spain carrying the wealth and prestige of the Spanish empire in the Americas. Besides heavy cargos of silver, gold and emeralds from Spain’s American possessions, the ships carried thousands of sailors, soldiers, passengers, and all the necessary materials and provisions for a long voyage. The fleet was overtaken by a hurricane as it entered the Florida Straits. By the next morning eight Spanish vessels lay smashed on the ocean floor, scattered from the Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas. Among these sunken ships were the Santa Margarita, the Nuestra Senora del Rosario and the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

The Florida Keys. Credit: NASA

The most famous Spanish wreck found west of the Florida Keys was the above-mentioned Nuestra Señora de Atocha with a value estimated by some at $300,000,000.

Beginning in the 1500s, virtually every navy in Europe sailed these waters. Spanish, English, Dutch, Portuguese, French and eventually American colors have fluttered over the Straits.  Many ships flying no colors, pirates and privateers, prowled the Straits in the 1600s and 1700s seeking luckless and under-armed victims. During World War II, German U-boats transited the Straits on their way into the Gulf, but they remained only a short time before withdrawing to the much safer and deeper waters of the Atlantic Ocean. 

The Florida Keys contain the few coral reefs in the continental United States, making it a haven for fish and coral. These same reefs are hazards to navigation and thousands of ships have wrecked over the centuries in the Keys and elsewhere in the waters of Florida.

Key West

As Liberty Star enters the Florida Straits we should note one of the oldest inhabited islands of this area, Key West. First noted for its potentially strategic location by Ponce de Leon in 1513, Key West — or Cayo Hueso, as it was originally known by the Spanish — is situated at the western gate of Florida Straits some 90 miles north of Havana, Cuba. Key West had for several centuries a more or less continuous exploration and commercial relationship with her sister colony in Cuba. Fishing and salt production highlighted some of the early industries.

Key West, Fla., seen from the International Space Station in 2002. Credit: NASA

Spanish rule of the area was interrupted by twenty years of English domination, but the end of the American Revolution in 1783 returned Florida to Spain. In 1819 Spain ceded all of Florida to the United States and as a result the population began to grow along with American interest in the Keys strategic military location. 

A major fortification, Fort Zachery Taylor, was built at the extreme western end of Key West just prior to the American Civil War and although Florida seceded from the Union, Fort Taylor was seized by Federal forces almost immediately after hostilities began.  Just east up the coast from Fort Taylor Union engineers built additional fortifications known today as the East and West Towers of Fort Martello. 

Key West played a pivotal role in preventing Confederate blockade runners from operating freely in the Gulf of Mexico throughout the Civil War.

Some 27 sailors who died in the USS Maine explosion in Havana Harbor were buried at the Key West Cemetery.

Both forts have been preserved and are open to the public. In the 1960s Fort Taylor was fully excavated and found to have buried within its confines the largest collection of surviving civil war cannon anywhere in the country.

The U.S. Navy returned to Key West with a large presence during World War II and remains today a major employer in the area with Key West Naval Air Station and other smaller facilities. 

Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas

Today we are passing one of the most famous forts of the Gulf Coast defense system envisioned after the War of 1812 and designed to keep those pesky enemy fleets away from the our favorite beaches of Galveston, Gulf Shores, Pensacola, Panama City and of course Destin.

To our east lies the Dry Tortugas and located on one of those islands, Garden Key, is historic Fort Jefferson. Built in the mid-1800’s, with over 16 million bricks, this is America’s largest coastal fort. Originally constructed to protect the important Gulf of Mexico shipping lanes, Fort Jefferson was used as a military prison during and after the Civil War. During this time, it was “home” to Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of complicity in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, but pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.

The Islands were first discovered by Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon in 1513. It was first named Las Tortugas, The Turtles, due to the abundance of sea turtles. Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846 but the fort, which covers 11 of the key’s 16 acres, was never apparently finished. The fort was plagued with construction problems and yellow fever epidemics. The invention of the rifled cannon made the fort obsolete, as its brick walls could be easily penetrated. The Army finally abandoned Fort Jefferson in 1874.

In 1898 the USS Maine made a stop here at Fort Jefferson; then moved on to its rendezvous with destiny at Havana, Cuba.

Dry Tortugas, seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

In 1908 the area became a wildlife refuge to protect nesting birds from egg collectors. In 1935 Fort Jefferson was proclaimed as a National Monument but it was not until 1992 that Dry Tortugas was designated a National Park to protect both the historical and natural features. Limited camping is available.  Park officials tell you to bring your own water. I think I’ll go camping there someday. Sounds really great.


Blasting off into space is quite a scene. At the Kennedy Space Center everyone leaves their respective work areas and hurries outside as the countdown reaches its final minutes. The observers at Kennedy are joined by hundreds of thousands all across Florida, millions along the east coast of the U.S. and millions across the world; all now standing gazing in the direction of the launch pad or television sets, computers, waiting the final critical moments to pass; waiting for the space shuttle main engines and the solid rocket boosters to fire; ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three.

A space shuttle launch blasts off from Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

Finally, those last few agonizing nervous seconds drag by; breathing increases, stomachs tightening and as the external tank flows liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to the main engines, now firing; a bright orange light; two-one-ignition, and the solid rocket boosters ignite adding their red-rose-orange tint; smoke now billowing high as the blast of the engines and motors is dampened by jets of water flowing beneath space shuttle; the shuttle rises, slowly at first and then it seems to jump, and race into the skies. It all happens so fast. It is an amazing sight. You want it to last forever. Rockets hurling explorers into space…with a whole world of well-wishers yelling, “aw-ing,” cheering, crying, tears flowing, gasping for breath, spirits soaring from the ground as the shuttle roars and speeds off. In two and half minutes the shuttle reaches 165,000 feet and the boosters separate to fall to Earth. In eight and a half minutes the shuttle is in space and the external tank separates somewhere near Europe, never to be seen again.  

STS-29 mission onboard photo depicts the External Tank (ET) falling toward the ocean
after separation from the Shuttle orbiter Discovery. Credit: NASA

There are those who share this moment with the watching world and yet never lose their focus and their concentration on the data streaming to their work stations; telling them about the health and performance of the propulsion systems, the external tank, the space shuttle main engines, the solid rocket boosters and the solid rocket motors, as the shuttle tears away from gravity into the sky. These are very special people.

These are SpaceEngineers.

They come in all shapes and sizes and academic and experience backgrounds; they come from every engineering discipline you can imagine; electrical engineers, mechanical engineers; aerospace engineers; chemical engineers; metallurgical engineers; materials engineers, industrial engineers; civil engineers; combustion engineers, fluids mechanics engineers; computer engineers; software engineers; nanotechnology engineers; tribology engineers, molecular engineers; and mechtronics engineers. Separately, they live and work in isolated bands; building; testing, meeting; evaluating; analyzing; studying; pondering; following the data. Together they mean a lot more; the separate bands become teams, panels, study groups; Redteams; action teams; briefing teams; project offices, program offices; mission teams; the “Right Stuff” of spaceflight.

Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., houses the team heading up the space shuttle propulsion systems. This is the NASA team responsible for the safe launch of the space shuttle all the way to tank separation at eight-an-a-half minutes into flight; the most critical phase of every mission to space. A lot rides on the shoulders of this team and this team is well aware of the seriousness of what they are all about.

The successful launch of the space shuttle is only the beginning of each mission. The shuttle propulsion team, officially known to NASA as the Shuttle Propulsion Office, works under the umbrella of the greater shuttle team, the Space Shuttle Program Office, which resides at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. With each successful launch teams at Marshall, Kennedy and Johnson huddle to discuss the millions of bits of data recorded during ascent to determine if the propulsion systems performed as desired. During the last launch, STS-128, Friday, August 28, the propulsion teams at Marshall were satisfied to gleam an excellent performance from all three propulsion systems; the official term being nominal performance. The review of this data will continue and actually never really end; periodically pulled for review and comparison at some point in the future. Currently, the propulsion teams are staging for the next launch, STS-129, scheduled for November.

Space shuttle Discovery’s brilliant launch over NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla.,
just moments before midnight on Aug. 28, 2009. Credit: NASA

Working together, these teams of SpaceEngineers, will follow the data to consider changes needed immediately; which could delay the next flight; or changes needed or desirable over a longer term. Improvements to seals, thermal protection systems, hold-down posts, materials of many kinds, manufacturing and assembly processes, software changes, hardware changes, changes to test and analysis, certifications of all kinds are all in the daily work of the teams.

They meet a lot; face to face; and deliberate the pros and cons of suggested material and design changes; they confirm and they dissent. All are heard.  It is not an army that must quickly turn to face a new threat.  It is an army of thousands that follows the data and launches space shuttles safely. When they meet, an occasional expression of humor is the exception; a deep sense of focus, diligence and determination to do what is right prevails over all else. They know that space is the most unforgiving of all environments. They have all deeply felt the tragedy and loss of those who fly with the shuttles. These are SpaceEngineers. 

Let’s meet the SpaceEngineers of Marshall’s Shuttle Propulsion Office. But before we do, there are two things I’d like you to know:  first, all of these SpaceEngineers rose up the ladder to their present positions of responsibilities through hard and dedicated work, accomplishing many difficult things, serving in many subordinate capacities, some being mentored by the SpaceEngineers of the Apollo/Saturn Program and early Space Shuttle Program, mentoring others in their own time, achieving much for the space program.  Without exception they have earned and worked hard for the heavy responsibilities they currently bear.

Second, the management team leads several hundred dedicated government and contractor engineers at Marshall and at the home bases of the primary contractors who build the propulsion hardware. ATK builds and refurbishes the reusable solid rocket boosters and motors; United Space Alliance is responsible for solid rocket boosters assembly and overall space shuttle vehicle integration at Kennedy, Lockheed Martin assembles the external tanks, Pratt Whitney Rocketydne builds and refurbishes the space shuttle main engines.  NASA has a great contractor shuttle propulsion team.

Let’s Meet The Propulsion SpaceEngineers!

The Shuttle Propulsion Office manager is Steve Cash ($) of Huntsville, Ala., a graduate of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
(Roll Tide!)

The Shuttle Propulsion Office Deputy is Jody Singer of Hartselle, Ala., a graduate of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
(Roll Tide!)

The Shuttle Propulsion Office Technical Assistant is Yolanda Harris, pictured at right, of Decatur, Ala., a graduate of Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Ala. (Go Tigers!) and the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
(Roll Tide!)

The Shuttle Propulsion Office Chief Engineer is James W. Owen, of Dallas, Texas, and is a graduate of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
(Go Chargers!)

The Space Shuttle Main Engine Office manager is Jerry Cook of Greenville, Ala., a graduate of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
(Roll Tide!)

The External Tank Project Office manager is John Chapman of Spartanburg, SC, a graduate of Georgia Tech, Atlanta, Ga.
(Ramblin’ Wrecks of Georgia Tech!)

The Reusable Solid Rocket Booster Project Office manager is David Beaman a native of Huntsville, Ala., and a graduate of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Ala.
(Roll Tide!)

The Propulsion Systems Engineering and Integration (PSEI) Office manager is Helen McConnaughey of Portersville, Calif., a graduate of Occidental University in Los Angeles, Calif., and Cornell University, Ithica, NY. (Go Big Red)

I haven’t said lot about this special PSEI team. Most of their work is done well before launch. As their title indicates, this team works across and pulls together the disciplines of the external tanks, the main engines and the solid rocket boosters to integrate work and resolve engineering challenges such as potential hazards  crossing over from one propulsion system to another; a kind of engineering coordination and monitoring group to insure engineering issues that affect all propulsion elements  such as aerodynamics, loading, and electromagnetic  effects are worked in an integrated manner.

The team lead of the External Tank Project Resident Office at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans is Patrick Whipps .He is the senior representative responsible for day-to-day operations involving the manufacture of space shuttle external tanks. He coordinates the work of engineers and other technical specialists engaged in the research, design and development that supports external tank production for the Space Shuttle Propulsion Office

The Resident Office located at Kennedy is Marshall’s “eyes and ears” at “the Cape.” Resident Office representatives for each shuttle propulsion element — space shuttle main engines, external tank, solid rocket boosters and reusable solid rocket motors — track launch processing and launch related status and issues and participate in problem resolution. A representative of the Propulsion Systems Engineering and Integration Office acts as technical liaison for integration issues.

Located within view of the Vehicle Assembly Building, the Resident Office keeps its hand on the pulse of Kennedy shuttle operations. Resident Office personnel also have an important role during tests, simulations and launches. They monitor data from the Marshall Engineering Support Area adjacent to the Kennedy Launch Control Center. In addition to the propulsion element staff, two members of Marshall’s Safety & Mission Assurance Office are part of the Resident Office team.

The Marshall Resident Office team includes, from left, Alex Alvarado, Linda Clark,
Wendy Snooks, Roy Worthy, Sandy Saville, Tony Smith, Jolene Martin, Daniel D’Agostino,
Jaime McMillon, John Key, Bethany March, Sharon Feagan and Diane Fleming.

That’s the team that will likely fly out the remaining flights of the space shuttle. 


Pegasus Has Set Sail!

6:38 pm Central Time
The Pegasus crew and tug boat crew let go all lines and Angelica E moved into position forward of Pegasus. Angelica crewmen threw heaving lines over to the Pegasus as the full Pegasus crew hauled in the heavy tow cables from Angelica E on to Pegasus bow and looped them over the two forward bollards — large steel posts used for securing mooring lines.  Watch the paying out of the tow line

6:52 pm, Sunday,  Central Time
Pegasus — and its VIP, ET-134 — is under tow by Angelica E while tug boat Emmett Eymard is providing push from aft. Pegasus and ET-134 are under way into the Intracoastal Waterway, heading east for Gulfport, Miss. via Chef Menteur Pass, Rigolets and the Mississippi Sound.

Liberty Star Sailing in 'Breezy' Gulf of Mexico

Captain’s Corner: Oct. 19, 7:15 p.m., Eastern
Liberty Star Sailing in ‘Breezy’ Gulf

The mission to tow Pegasus and ET-134 from Gulfport, Miss. to Kennedy Space Center, Fla., is proceeding very well. Due to increased winds and duration of swells, Liberty Star chose to lengthen the tow line today to 1,800 feet. This reduces shock and wear on both vessels.

We are under way at eight knots (a little over nine miles per hour) in seas swelling from 4-6 feet and northeasterly winds from 20-27 knots. This evening we are passing the halfway point between Gulfport, Miss., and the Dry Tortugas near Florida. At this point the crew celebrates being able to receive television stations from central Florida — so we can get some much-needed hometown news.

Weather reports for tomorrow pretty much show we will encounter similar weather as today.

Mike Nicholas
Captain, Liberty Star

ET-134's Mission,STS-130: Launching Tranquility

ET-134 will play its vital role in the launch of space shuttle mission STS-130 to the International Space Station. The targeted launch date of Feb. 4, 2010 at 6:20 a.m. Eastern  from the Kennedy Space Center is tentative until a final date is selected by the mission manager team in January, a few weeks before the actual launch. ET-134 will power the space shuttle main engines of the space shuttle Endeavour, which will carry a crew of six astronauts:

STS-130 Mission Patch
Commander George Zamka, Pilot Terry Virts
Mission Specialists Bob Behnken, Nicholas Patrick, Kathryn Hire and Steve Robinson

This mission is an important one for the space station and its European partners. Endeavour will deliver Node 3, named Tranquility, and the Cupola, a robotic control station with six windows around its sides and another in the center that provides a 360-degree view around the station. At least three spacewalks are planned during this, the 32nd space shuttle assembly mission to the space station.

Tranquility was built under management of NASA’s partners in the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency by Thales Alenia Space for the Space Station Program. 

Construction of space station Node 3, named Tranquility. Credit: NASA

The Cupola, a large window module and robotics work station will be attached to the nadir-side (down looking) of Tranquility. The module also includes various critical space station systems, especially life support systems.

The Cupola is an ESA-built observatory module. Once installed, it will provide space station crew members with a direct view of robotic operations and docked spacecraft, as well as an observation point for observing the Earth. Its name derives from Italian cupola, which means “dome.”

Designed and built by the Italian contractor Alenia, it is approximately six feet in diameter and three feet tall. It has six side windows and a top window, all of which are equipped with shutters to protect them from damage by micrometeorites and orbital debris. It features a thermal control system, audio, video, as well as the connections needed for installing in it one of the two identical robotic workstations that control the Canadarm2. It will initially be installed on the Unity Module and later be transferred to the Tranquility module of the space station.

The Italian Space Agency also built all three space station nodes; Unity, Harmony and Tranquility; as well as all three multipurpose logistics modules (MPLMs): Leonardo, Raffaello and Donnatello. The MPLMs are used to transport up to 10 tons of cargo to the space station each mission.

The Flight of External Tank ET-134

It’s the third day at sea, and I’m standing near the stern of Liberty Star, staring back at Pegasus and thinking about our VIP, ET-134. It’s mid October and ET-134 will fly with STS-130 in February; with Endeavour Commander George Zamka and Pilot Terry Virts Jr.; and fly with Mission Specialists Bob Behnken, Nicholas Patrick, Kathryn Hire and Steve Robinson. The duration of ET-134’s mission will be completed in about eight minutes and thirty seconds, but it will travel a total of 13,690 miles in 73 minutes.

Space Shuttle Discovery and its seven-member STS-128 lift off on Aug. 28, 2009
from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

The solid rocket boosters, the space shuttle main engines and orbiter Endeavour will all return from space to be rebuilt, refurbished and reconditioned, but ET-134 will give everything it has to its mission and it will not return home to fly again.

ET-134, taller than a 15-story building and more than 27 feet in diameter, will absorb the 7.8 million pounds of thrust of the three space shuttle main engines and solid rocket boosters while feeding 190,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and 390,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen to the main engines and maintaining the structural integrity of the complete “shuttle stack.”

ET-134, like all external tanks, is constructed of aluminum and steel alloys and titanium. The majority of the tank has one-inch thick spray-on foam insulation that is applied to its exterior. This foam insulation maintains the propellants at an acceptable temperature, minimizes ice build-up on the launch pad and protects the tank from booster, main engine and aerodynamic heating during launch.
It has a propellant feed system that supplies the liquid fuel and oxygen to the orbiter engines; a pressurization and vent system to regulate its pressure; an electrical system to distribute power; and an environmental system to regulate the temperature and atmosphere in the intertank. The intertank is not a tank itself, but the mechanical connection between the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks. Its primary function is to provide structural continuity to the propellant tanks, to serve as a protective compartment to house instruments, and to receive and distribute thrust loads from the solid rocket boosters.

At 370,000 feet or about 70 miles above the Atlantic Ocean and about eight minutes, thirty seconds into the flight at 17,000 miles per hour, ET-134 will complete its mission of fueling the three voracious space shuttle main engines. On cue in this carefully choreographed series of events during ascent, the engines will shut down, immediately followed by the firing of pyrotechnique devices to separate the orbiter from the external tank. When seen on NASA television it appears that the space shuttle pulls away from the external tank, seemingly anxious to continue its own mission to fly on to the International Space Station. Actually, 11 seconds after main engine cut-off computers command the orbiter to fire a series of maneuvering jets and push forward along the external tank passing at a safe distance and at about 20 feet per second. Then the orbiter does a back flip; nose pitching up 90 degrees.

As the back flip is completed, the orbiter is some 7,000 feet away and STS-130 Mission Specialists Bob Behnken and Kathryn Hire, who have already left their seats, will retrieve photographic still and video cameras from special lockers and begin filming ET-134 as the tank and orbiter fly in rough formation for a few moments.  These images, eagerly awaited by image interpreters and photographic experts at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., are critically important as a source of information to confirm the performance of the external tank thermal protection system during ascent.

A space shuttle external tank falls toward Earth after a successful launch.
Credit: NASA

Mission Specialists Bob Behnken and Kathryn Hire will be the last people to see ET-134, as it slowly slips away. If all has gone according to plan, a few days later, experts on the ground will confirm that ET-134 has performed its mission to deliver the crew and orbiter with minimal loss of foam, thus guaranteeing the safe continuation of the mission to the space station and its return to Earth.

Now ET-134 will continue on its own sub-orbital trajectory, reaching its apogee of 130 miles and then fall away toward the Earth. At this point ET-134 will be flying alone, no propulsion, no direction changes, sailing on its fixed azimuth over Europe on a planned trajectory across southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean and ultimately south of Australia.

Over the Pacific Ocean, south of Tasmania, ET-134 will encounter the upper atmosphere. Here it will begin to heat up and disintegrate.   At this point it is important that ET-134 holds together just long enough, but not too long.  The lower in the atmosphere the ET-134 plunges before breaking apart  the smaller the footprint of possible debris reaching the Earth’s surface. Special BX foam on the liquid oxygen feed line will break off early in just the desired sequence causing  hot gases to penetrate the line and initiate the final break up.  After a fiery descent through the atmosphere, ET-134 will no longer hold together, and will break up into hundreds of small pieces of metal and plunge toward the 11,000 foot depths of the southwestern Pacific Ocean, east of Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania.

In the deep of the blue-green Pacific Ocean, ET-134 will join the long gone remnants of thousands of other sailing ships as well as the sailors and explorers of every sea-faring nation of the Earth. ET-134 will be in good company.

Meet the Crew: Liberty Star

Let’s meet more of the crew that keeps Liberty Star running smoothly.

Dragan Jurkovic, Cook
Cook Dragan Jurkovic, 47, tells me he is a native of Croatia, but currently calls Cocoa, Fla., his home. He has been onboard Liberty Star for two years and has served on a variety of cruise ships for seven years.

He holds a four year culinary degree from Culinary School Osijek in Croatia.
How does he like his duties on Liberty Star? “The part of the job that I like is cooking and preparing fine dining meals, as well as creating new meals from different countries. Also, I love going out to sea to work on the solid rocket boosters.”

Dragan prepares three meals each day for a crew of up to 24 persons at sea during booster recovery operations, but also works at Hangar AF for solid rocket booster disassembly, helps out on deck and also stands ship watches while in port. He has begun maritime industry related studies from the Maritime Professional Training School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in his pursuit of qualification as an AB-Able Bodied Seaman.

When off the ship, Dragan mirrors many of his ship mates’ outdoor activities — playing tennis with his daughter, fishing and hunting. Dragan also likes to cook for a big party.

Personal comment by blogger Steve Roy:  I am hardly an expert on Croatia, but what I have seen of the coast from a cruise ship was spectacular; rough hewn mountainsides, beautiful blue green waters, perfect for swimming and snorkeling.  The fortress and harbor at Dubrovnik are equally impressive. In comparison to other countries of the Balkans, Croatia has an extensive coastline.

Cody Gordon, Boatswain

I met Cody Gordon (Sonny), 23, a native of Merritt Island, Fla., when I visited Liberty Star on a Saturday morning in August. Cody had the watch that day at the dock at Hangar AF at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and took time to tour me across and through the ship — teaching me the jargon and many interesting details about the ship and taking me on a deck-by-deck tour.  That’s when I learned how much there is to learn about the booster recovery ships; I had just scratched the surface. Thanks again, Cody, for that tour.

Cody actually has served most of his time with United Space Alliance, four-and-a-half years, onboard Freedom Star, so he’s filling in on this trip for a Liberty Star regular. 
He is studying business administration at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and taking industry related courses at Maritime Professional Training Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., ultimately to test for his 1,600 ton Mate’s license. He already holds an Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels, a term used describe a charter boat captain’s license.

Before joining the NASA fleet Cody worked four years in the private marine industry on various sport fishing vessels. In case you added up his experience, you should have concluded that Cody is 23 years old and has worked almost nine of those years in maritime jobs. His current duties include supervision of the deck crew with regards to maintenance and repair of the ship’s exterior and interior and deck machinery, in addition to standing two four-hour navigational watches as a lookout while the vessel is under way.

When he’s not at work, Cody enjoys working on his house, fishing, diving, and spending time with his girlfriend.

What does he like about is work? Goes to sea because he enjoys the constant change of scenery the ocean offers. Cody’s father worked for USA in the space program for 25 years, and he takes a great deal of interest and pride in the American space program.

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.