Tag Archives: Intracoastal Waterway

Into the Gulf

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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 www.marinetraffic.com 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.

Welcome Aboard Liberty Star!

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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…

Pegasus Under Way With Liberty Star Into the Gulf of Mexico

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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

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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 Near Gulfport

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9:55 a.m. — Pegasus Just Outside of Gulfport, Miss.

Pegasus passed south of Cat Island around 6:30 a.m. CDT, having crossed the Mississippi Sound at about five miles per hour. Currently waiting to enter the Port of Gulfport, Gulfport, Miss. Skies are clear and the morning air is quite brisk. Lead crewman Rick Gager believes we will arrive at the port at approximately 10 a.m. CDT.