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.

Sailing with NASA

Last week, one of NASA’s Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster Recovery (SRB) ships, the Liberty Star, sailed from its dock at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, picked up the tow of NASA’s Pegasus barge and headed south along the Atlantic coast, through the Straits of Florida, and across the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Gulfport, Gulfport, Miss.  The Liberty Star arrived at Gulfport, Miss., today, October 13. Two small tug boats then picked up Pegasus and towed her to Michoud Assembly facility in East New Orleans. In the early morning hours of Friday, October 16, Pegasus will arrive back in Gulfport where Liberty Star will again take the barge in tow and begin the return voyage back across the Gulf and the Straits of Florida to deliver a very important passenger to the Kennedy Space Center.

It’s a journey the Liberty Star and her sister ship, the Freedom Star, have made repeatedly since 1996.  That year the booster recovery ships were pressed into service to tow Pegasus for the major part of the voyage between Michoud Assembly Facility in East New Orleans in lieu of using commercial tug boats the entire distance. 

As mentioned above commercial tug boats are still used to tow Pegasus at the very beginning of the journey in Louisiana and Mississippi and during the final miles in a shallow and narrow channel to the turn basin in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. 

The very important passenger (VIP) that needs to be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center, on time and in good shape, is one of the most important elements of what is known as the “Shuttle Stack,” the complete towering Shuttle Transportation System. The “Stack” includes the Orbiter, the three Space Shuttle Main Engines, the two reusable solid rocket boosters and motors and the very important passenger that will ride the Pegasus; an external tank numbered 134.

ET-134 will be the backbone of the “Shuttle Stack” and the gas tank for the space shuttle main engines for the February 2010 launch of space shuttle Endeavour’s flight to the International Space Station, mission number STS-130.

Watch how an external tank “goes to sea” (Windows, streaming)

NASA public affairs officer, Steve Roy (that’s me) of the Marshall Space Flight Center, will travel on board the Pegasus and Liberty Star to give you some insight into NASA’s maritime operations and life on board the vessels that make these important 1,800 mile round trips, as well as the story of the VIP of the trip, ET-134. Steve will be joined by NASA television producer Mick Speer of Marshall Television, a former U.S. Navy photographer and television production specialist. Steve will blog via the NASA portal several times a day with updates, images and video.

To begin I’d like to explain the relationship between SRB recovery ships, the Pegasus barge, Michoud Assembly Facility and my NASA center, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.  The Marshall Center exercises overall management responsibilities for NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility where the external tanks are built by Lockheed Martin. Marshall also has management responsibility for the manufacturing, assembly and delivery of the external tanks as part of the space shuttle transportation system, as well as the solid rocket boosters and motors and space shuttle main engines.

Management responsibility for the solid rocket boosters includes their recovery at sea. The prime contractor under Marshall for booster recovery is United Space Alliance (USA) in Cape Canaveral. USA runs all aspects of day-to-day maritime operations for NASA including training crews, readiness of the NASA fleet, real time booster recovery operations, and towing external tanks for the majority of the trip to Kennedy Space Center.

From a Flickr Photo Gallery: “Booster Recovery at Sea”

I am the NASA public affairs officer with responsibility to support all aspects of the external tanks, reusable solid rocket boosters and motors and the space shuttle main engines. Thus by definition, and lucky for me, I am the NASA public affairs officer, along with the public affairs staff of United Space Alliance, with responsibility to support the role of the recovery ships, Freedom Star and Liberty Star, as well as the Pegasus barge.

I am but one spokesperson in a greater NASA public affairs team that supports space flight operations of the space shuttle, expendable launch vehicles and the International Space Station. That team includes the public affairs space operations teams at NASA Headquarters, Washington D.C.; at Johnson Space Center in Texas; at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; at Stennis Research Center in Mississippi; and the team at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The space operations public affairs team also includes other public affairs representatives at United Space Alliance (USA), which includes the major orbiter subcontractor Boeing, in Florida and Texas; Lockheed Martin/Michoud Assembly Facility (LM/MAF builds external tanks) in Louisiana; Pratt Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR) builds space shuttle main engines) in California and Florida, and ATK (ATK builds RSRMs) in Utah.

Sounds complicated uh? It’s not so bad when you’re in the middle of it. Let’s get ready to go.  Grab your binoculars, flip flops, sun screen, folding chair and snacks and head to your computer. Join the voyage and Sail with NASA!