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.

The Cradle of External Tanks: The Space Shuttle's Gas Tank

To understand the role that external tanks play and why this trip begins in eastern New Orleans on the Intracoastal Waterway, you have to start where they are built, NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility.

The original tract of land where Michoud Assembly facility was built was part of a 34,500-acre French Royal land grant to local merchant Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent in 1763. By the early 1800s, the property was owned by architect and engineer Bartholomey Lafon, whose maps of the waters surrounding the tract were used in defeating the British in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. Near Chalmette, LA, a few miles from Michoud, the mischievous British army advanced in the open against a mixed force of U.S. Army regulars, American Indians, New Orleans militia and local buccaneers hunkered down behind hastily built trenches and barricades. Massed rifle and musket fire turned the British formation into shambles before the British withdrew, losing 2,000 casualties, their commanding general, Edward Pakenham, and the two other most senior officers.

Later, the land was acquired by French transplant Antoine Michoud, who moved to the city in 1827. Michoud operated a sugar cane plantation and refinery on the site until his death in 1863. His heirs continued operating the refinery and kept the original St. Maxent estate intact into the 20th century. Two brick smokestacks from the original refinery still stand on the Michoud facility grounds.

In 1940, the U.S. government purchased the land as a site for war-related construction. Three years later, the world’s largest production building at the time, covering 43 acres under one roof, was completed. The plant was used during World War II to build cargo planes and other aircraft, and again during the Korean War to produce tank engines.

The Michoud facility was acquired by NASA in 1961, after its availability was brought to the space agency’s attention by Wernher von Braun, known as the father of the Saturn family of rockets, who was named the first director of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., in 1960.
Managed by the Marshall Center, Michoud includes one of the world’s largest manufacturing plants, with 43 acres under one roof, and a port permitting transportation of large space systems and hardware.

Building External Tanks
External tanks are assembled at Michoud from hardware delivered by hundreds of sub-contractors and vendors.  Once the components are positioned at Michoud, a small army of aerospace workers begin the almost three year process to fully assemble, weld, test and inspect a new external tank. 

Flickr Gallery: External Tank Assembly

Today there are four external tanks in the assembly line at Michoud, ET-135 thru ET-138. All of these tanks will board Pegasus in late 2009 or early 2010 and make the 900-mile trip from Michoud to Kennedy Space Center to play their vital role in supplying the Space Shuttle Main Engines with 145,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and 390,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen during the first eight-and-a-half-minutes of launch.  One additional tank resides at Michoud, but it may never fly. ET-122 was present at Michoud when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005 and was damaged.  In fact ET-122 is now being repaired to serve as the very last tank of the Space Shuttle Program, the Launch on Need tank for the last scheduled space shuttle mission, STS-133, in the fall of 2010.  If all goes well with that mission ET-122 should never fly.

Flickr Gallery: External Tank Assembly

After the loss of space shuttle Columbia in February 2003, NASA went to work to redesign and improve many components of the structures of the external tanks and the application processes of the all important foam, also known as the Thermal Protection System or TPS. Major improvements have been made to the tank’s forward bipod fitting area, the liquid hydrogen tank Ice Frost Ramps, the intertank flange area, and the liquid oxygen feedline brackets and bellows. The tank’s protuberance air load ramps — known as PAL ramps — were also removed.

By the summer of 2008 external tank foam application and new designs had reduced the amount of foam being released during launch to very small, if not tiny amounts of foam. The successful reduction in foam debris came as a result of a non-stop process of continuous improvement to make shuttle launches as safe as possible, recognizing that external tanks will still release very small amounts of foam.  Even with a few hiccups, the external tanks flying today are the safest and best tanks ever flown in the history of the shuttle program.

The newest tanks, including ET-134, have been welded using a new welding technology called Friction Stir Welding, a technique better than conventional fusion welding.  Friction stir welding is different in that the materials are not melted. A rotating tool pin uses friction and pressure to plasticize the metal and join the two parts together. As a result, weld joints are more efficient, yielding 80 percent of the base strength. Fusion welding averages 40 to 50 percent of the base material’s strength.  In fact ET-134 is the first external tank to have most of its liquid hydrogen tank welding performed by friction stir welding.

Flickr Gallery: External Tank Assembly, Friction Stir Welding

Flickr Gallery: External Tank Assembly, Friction Stir Welding

Here’s the status of the remaining external tanks:

ET-133/STS-129 is poised to launch from KSC in November
ET-134/STS-130 is en route to KSC with Pegasus
ET-135/STS-131 is in assembly at MAF
ET-136/STS-132 is in assembly at MAF
ET-137/STS-134 is in assembly at MAF
ET-138/STS-133 is in assembly at MAF

With the upcoming completion of the Space Shuttle Program in 2010 the end of the assembly line at Michoud is coming to an end as well.  The number of workers at Michoud building external tanks is declining steadily and eventually there will be no work on external tanks. Work will eventually shift to other NASA projects.

As NASA enters a new era in space travel, the Michoud Assembly Facility is poised to continue its legacy, providing vital support to NASA’s mission to return humans to space and perhaps the moon, Mars and perhaps to extend a human presence into the solar system.

To fully understand Michoud today you have to understand what the facility and what its employees experienced in late August 2005; Hurricane Katrina.

My first trip to Michoud was in the aftermath of Katrina. I traveled by air to Gulfport, Miss. and then overland to Stennis Research Center located some 40 miles to the east of Michoud.  I then traveled with Marshall Security from Stennis to Michoud overland via Interstate 10 and  Highway 11 thru Slidell, La. What I saw in Slidell was truly a shock. The portion of Slidell nearest the coast on Lake Pontchartrain had been badly flooded and was abandoned rubble; giant toothpicks lay everywhere. The most dangerous part of Katrina had passed to the east of Slidell and smashed the small Mississippi coastal towns like Waveland, Pass Christian and Gulfport, but Slidell received much of the wrath of Katrina as well.  Entire neighborhoods of Slidell were nothing more than stacks of debris twenty feet high; people’s homes, schools, and businesses; people’s hopes and dreams. It was a wrenching sight. 

What I didn’t know then was that many Slidell area residents and other residents of mauled East New Orleans represented much of the Lockheed Martin workforce at Michoud; the workforce that builds external tanks; the backbone and gas tank of Shuttle Transportation System.

Our little convoy passed over Lake Pontchartrain on Highway 11, which unlike I-10 was still standing, crossed under the Interstate 10 overpass and entered Irish Bayou.  There were few structures standing in Irish Bayou.  One man was living alone in a house built on stilts and our security detachment stopped to check up on him. His home had a roof and only three walls and he was very tired and haggard.  His job, a cook in a restaurant in Slidell, no longer existed. Over the next few days on subsequent daily trips our security detachment dropped off small amounts of food and water for the lone survivor and although money wasn’t worth much because nothing was open, I gave him my travel money.  In the early days after Katrina Lockheed Martin employees of the rideout team and a Marshall Security detachment were the first group to clear a route of debris along this portion of Highway 11 thru Irish Bayou, permitting vehicle traffic to enter East New Orleans and travel to Michoud.

We continued into eastern New Orleans and worked our way to Michoud proper. I had only a very vague idea of how Michoud had fared during Katrina. Michoud was intact, standing with some damage, but I had no real idea how the external tank production line had fared.  After meeting with the Michoud/NASA Chief Operating Officer Patrick Scheuerman, I headed across to see the external tank manufacturing floor in Building 103 and assess the area for a stand up location for an upcoming television interview with Miles O’Brien of CNN, pre-arranged by my colleague and friend Dave Drachlis. Miles O’Brien had been covering the New Orleans story since early post Katrina and he had shown interest interviewing members of the Michoud Hurricane Rideout Team, all Lockheed Martin employees, who made up the vast majority of Michoud employees building NASA’s external tanks.

U.S. Marines, Colorado and Washington state National Guard soldiers and Canadian and American search and rescue personnel dotted the landscape of Michoud.  Helicopters of all types came and went regularly, particularly the helicopters of the U.S. Coast Guard.  Everyone knows about their incredible service to the people of New Orleans.

Then I received the second shock of the day. I entered the all important manufacturing floor of Building 103. I could see perhaps two or three small puddles of water and some disturbed roofing, but everything else including several external tanks near completion was untouched. In fact it was so clean and orderly it nearly took your breath away. I crossed to the west side of Building 103 and picked the spot. Miles O’Brien would be brought here to shoot the interview, looking back to the east along the aligned sight of transporters, liquid oxygen tanks, liquid hydrogen tanks, intertanks and welding tools; all in pristine condition. I let out a sigh; Michoud was an island in a sea of disaster and the shuttle program had dodged a bullet, but not the Lockheed Martin employees of Michoud. Words like catastrophic, devastated and heart-rending are understatements at best to describe the condition of the greater New Orleans area, the city to which Michoud employees were now returning.

The International Space Station photographed Katrina’s damage from 230 miles
above. While Michoud (right) is largely dry, the adjacent neighborhoods are
extensively  flooded. (NASA)

The next day went like clockwork. Miles O’Brien checked in by cell phone and eventually flew by commercial helicopter into Michoud for the interview. He readily accepted the shoot location and interviewed three members of the rideout team, Lockheed Martin technicians who had operated the vital pump house pushing water out of Michoud as fast as it entered. Michoud could have flooded without the pump house and its team of technicians who braved wind and rain and drove in little visibility to keep the pumps working. 

One day later, while eating lunch next to a group of U.S. Marines in the recently restarted cafeteria, CNN started running the Miles O’Brien interview with the Michoud members of the rideout team. The cafeteria television was tuned to CNN and quickly caught everyone’s attention as Miles O’Brien described the heroic deeds of those who had risked their lives for the nation’s space program.  As a body, the Marines stood on their feet and clapped and cheered for the space workers present in the cafeteria, including many members from the rideout team. It was quite a moment. These were Marines that a few months earlier had just returned from combat operations in Faluja, Iraq. It was a fine tribute from one great body of Americans to another.

John Schwartz of the New York Times also braved the hot weather and minimal amenities and interviewed the rideout team at Michoud. He was great to work with. He wrote a good story.

By way of wrapping up the week at Michoud, Marshall Television deployed a production team  consisting of Bob Moder, James Bilbrey and Mick Speer to document the recovery work underway at Michoud and shoot interviews for NASA Television. This done we packed up and headed back to Huntsville, Ala. NASA television began broadcasting this video of Michoud the next day.

By late October 2005 sufficient workers of Michoud’s Lockheed Martin team had returned to work to restart the external tank assembly line. It should not be forgotten that many of these workers in the months ahead worked one or sometimes two shifts at the assembly line and then returned to their homes in the evening to strip their homes of moldy sheet rock, ruined furniture and appliances, ruined carpet and to shovel mounds of mud and other debris out of immediate sight. It was a non-stop work in progress for a highly dedicated group of aerospace workers.

I returned to New Orleans in June 2006 with my volunteer church group to help prepare houses for refurbishment. We worked for several days in Gentilly and East New Orleans pulling down moldy sheet rock, attic insulation and removing furniture and battered appliances; saving the home owners something like $8,000 each. At 95 degrees it was hot work. Insulation stuck like little pins in every corner, nook and cranny, as we sweated and heaved gunk and junk. Upon leaving New Orleans on the last day our group decided to pass through the Ninth Ward. Although the streets were clear of debris, almost every structure was badly mauled or unrecognizable; homes, businesses and churches had imploded from force of tons of water sloshing back and forth. It was the saddest sight I’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to all these people.