Meet the Crew: Liberty Star

More about the skilled professionals that are guiding ET-134 on its journey…

Todd RoseTodd Rose, Ordinary Seaman

Let’s meet Todd Rose of USA Marine Operations, serving on this trip as Ordinary Seaman with primary duties of serving as bridge lookout with the officer of the bridge. Todd, 42, is a unique seventh generation Floridian who currently resides in Merritt island, Fla.

Todd normally takes care of the ship’s retrieval equipment, serves as a diver during retrieval operations and participates in the disassembly of the boosters.

Todd enjoys all aspects of his multifaceted job and his contribution to the space program.

When not on the job, he enjoys being with family, diving, fishing and drag racing.

Allan Gravina, Second Mate

Second  Mate Allan Gravina (Big Al), 36, is from Long Island, N.Y.,  and has served onboard Freedom Star for some nine years. As Second Mate, his responsibilities onboard ship include the maintenance of all navigational equipment and medical supply inventories. Typical of Second Mates, he stands two four-hour navigation watches when the vessel is under way.

Big Al currently holds a 1,600 ton mate’s license. A 1,600 ton ship would be like one of the medium-sized coast guard cutters you can see docked at Port Canaveral near the cruise ships.

When asked what he likes about his job he says, “the part I like about the job the most is that I am one of only 20 people in the world doing what I do. It helps that I love being on the water and being part of the space program.”

When not at work he spends time on his boat with his wife and family.

John Bensen, Second Mate

Let’s now meet the Liberty Star’s Second Mate, John Bensen, 57, of Miami, Fla. The second mate, or second officer, is a licensed member of the deck department of a ship, third in command of the ship, a watch keeping officer, and customarily the ship’s navigator. Other duties vary, but the second mate has often received medical training and may also be in charge of maintaining distress signaling equipment.

John Bensen, also known as Russ, JB  or Gunny, has been on board Liberty Star an amazing 26 years. He’s seen a lot of the space program in that time. During most launches John is located off shore and close to the booster separation and down range impact area of those same boosters. He has seen 115 launches. He has an associate degree in Marine Science from Miami-Dade Junior College in Miami. His responsibilities on board ship include the maintenance of all navigational equipment and medical supply inventories. Typical of Second Mates, he stands two four-hour navigation watches when the vessel is under way.

The part of the job he likes most is going to sea and completing the job on time, safe and error-free.

When not sailing with NASA, John is into Civil War reenactments throughout the South and keeping up with his three daughters. His nickname “Gunny” comes directly from his role servicing a Civil War artillery piece during reenactments.

Michael Nicholas, Captain

Today, I had the opportunity to sit down with Captain Michael (Mike) Nicholas for a few minutes. 

He’s been sailing with the NASA booster recovery ships for 22 years and he holds a 1,600 ton Masters license upon oceans. Mike started work with the retrieval vessels when only 19 years old, in 1988, and has risen through the ranks from Ordinary Seaman to his current position of Relief Master. Quite an accomplishment in any career.

The 41-year-old, who claims Cape Canaveral, Fla., as home, oversees all operations of the vessel from safety, training and navigation to the accomplishment of the mission.

He says he may not have been an astronaut, but feels he’s a vital part of the space program. While it’s his job to ensure the Liberty Star, Pegasus barge and external tank make it safely from port to port, he’s also concerned with ensuring his “family” on the ship are well taken care of and learn during their time on the sea.

Mike enjoys the changing and challenging aspects of life at work on the sea. And believe it or not, when Mike is not on the ship, he still enjoys being on the water — fishing and diving.

Joe Chaput, Manager, United Space Alliance Marine Operations

Joe Chaput participates in firefighting training at Cape Canaveral, Fla., as part of normal Coast Guard certification training. Some months ago, in preparation for this trip on board Liberty Star, I met Joe Chaput. He took me on a tour of Liberty Star and onboard the Pegasus Barge. He is in charge of NASA/USA maritime assets with headquarters at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. We also talked by phone and e-mail several times and here’s how his very interesting career evolved. 

Joe is a native of Evanston, Ill. (a northern suburb of Chicago) and was raised in neighboring Wilmette. Fishing with his dad and watching the shipping on Lake Michigan stirred his interest in working on the water. In 1983, he graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.  After the academy, he worked on supply vessels and then on military supply ships for Military Sealift Command (MSC). While aboard a MSC ship in Port Canaveral, he witnessed the Liberty Star and Freedom Star get under way. Having met his future wife and looking for a place to call home, he applied for a position with the NASA fleet. They happened to be crewing up for a third vessel and he was hired. He eventually worked his way up to Captain of the Liberty Star where he served for 11 years. He then was moved to Marine Operations Manager in 2001.

If you want to know how to jump-start a seaborne career, I bet a talk with Joe would do the job. Many thanks to Joe for making this trip possible for NASA public affairs.

Liberty Star,Pegasus and ET-134 Under way in the Florida Straits

0945 a.m., Oct. 22 — Liberty Star, Pegasus and ET-134 Under way in the Florida Straits

Last night I stood by the watch on the bridge for a short time. The bridge, completely darkened, was lighted only by soft, red LED lights and the glow of the two radar scopes. The watch, John Jacobs and Clint Small, were checking readouts of wind direction, speed, the tow of Pegasus — depending upon their vision and the excellent ranging of the radars for vessels moving within the area of interest of Liberty Star. It was a dark, cloudy, starless night, as black as space.

Radar scopes fill up with targets now; off Liberty’s bow, the Strofades, a freighter pushing east; off Liberty’s starboard side, a tanker passing east and a freighter passing west; off Liberty’s port bow a yacht moving east; Key West packed with moored ships.

Seas are running 4 to 6 feet and we are moving at eight-and-one-half knots.

Pegasus, spray washing over her bow, reported all is well.

The Captain has just closed a meeting with his senior officers concerning plans for the remainder of this tow and upcoming missions beginning next week and into the busy weeks ahead.

A radio squawks! Coast Guard Station Key West via International Hailing Frequency: small craft advisory throughout the area.

The routine of weather and sea, ship and crew continues. All is well. Aarg!

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. 


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. 


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.

The Inside Story: More About Liberty Star

Liberty Star is a working ship; working 24 hours a day. Join me for a short tour around this unique ship! Come on inside!

The Liberty Star. Credit: NASA/KSC

The Bridge Deck
This deck is the highest level above water other than climbing one of the radar, radio or signal masts. From this deck, the Bridge watch team has a good view of the surrounding sea and with only minimal effort a person can move quickly to observe all around the ship.

The Bridge holds ship maneuvering controls, the cluster of navigation and communication equipment necessary to safely control booster recovery operations and sail the vessel through busy sea lanes to and from Gulfport, Miss. The Gulf of Mexico and Florida Straights are very busy waterways and require much vigilance, especially for a vessel maintaining a quarter-mile tow. After normal duty hours the ship is controlled and monitored by the watch, a small team which performs all the important normal functions but with fewer members of the crew.

Lighting the Way
Not surprisingly lighting is very important to ship safety. Power-driven vessels, like Liberty Star, are required to conform to standard maritime lighting rules; the starboard (right side looking forward) side of the ship is lit with green lights, while the port side (left) shows red lights. The stern or aft (rear) of the ship displays a white light; the main mast has a forward looking white light; and the mast on the bow of the ship has another forward looking white light known as the range light. The job a vessel is engaged in is also indicated by her lights. For towing astern, Liberty is also displaying an additional amber light astern and two additional white lights on the foremast to indicate that she is towing astern, length of tow exceeding 200 meters.

Flag It
As ancient a tradition as it seems, the Liberty Star maintains and regularly uses a standard set of nautical flags to communicate its status or intentions to other ships or aircraft. 

The International Code of Signals uses a set of 40 nautical flags. These signals were created to aid communication between boats, in both times of calm and distress. Each flag has a letter equivalent, and can be used to spell out messages. In addition, some flags have individual meaning and can be used by themselves or in combination with others to convey a message.

The International Code of Signals

For instance, the B-flag or Bravo flag is all red and indicates a vessel carrying or transferring dangerous cargo; the H-flag or Hotel flag (white and red) signals a pilot is on board the vessel helping the Captain steer in unfamiliar waters; the O-flag, Oscar, is yellow and red and ominously signals a man over board; and the flag with a white background and red x stretching from corner to corner indicates a ship requiring assistance. A very common nautical flag to Americans — frequently seen on automobile front bumpers — is a red background with a single white flash, indicating a diver down, is now an accepted as an international signal for a diver. The internationally recognized signal for diver down is the A-flag or Alfa flag and is white and blue. 

Many nautical flags signal the plight of seafaring vessels, such as dragging anchor, making no headway or on fire. Aarg…!

Today, displayed proudly high on the main mast is a flag with which you are intimately familiar; our national colors, the good old Stars and Stripes, looking good, holding fast, flying high.

They’re certified, for sure: Each member of the crew is certified, that is, they’re qualified to perform their respective tasks and responsibilities. On Liberty Star crew members’ certificates of qualification are posted for all to see on the bridge. Together, the certificates literally mean tens of thousands of hours of study, examination, assessment, experience and know-how within a single ten-person crew and many of the crew members are qualified as captains of vessels by their own right. For instance, in addition to Captain Nicholas, Chief Mate John Bensen and Bosun’s Mate John Jacobs also hold Captain’s licenses.

The Forecastle or 0-1 Deck
Immediately beneath the Bridge Deck resides the small 0-1 Deck. The 0-1 Deck is quite limited providing only the quarters for the Captain, as well as working and sleeping quarters for visitors such as scientists or observers. 

The Main Deck
The main deck is home to a great deal of physical work. It extends from beneath the forecastle deck all the way to the aft end of the ship where today we can see the towing cable strung over the stern into the Gulf of Mexico on to Pegasus. 

The main deck houses a general purpose workshop which in turn houses the main deck air conditioner, storage for a wide assortment of hand tools — some that you would easily recognize because you have them in your own garage and some you wouldn’t, storage for diving equipment, air compressors, emergency fire fighting pumps (Aarg!), an emergency generator and welding equipment. Elsewhere on the enclosed portion of the main deck we find a small lounge for recreation (maybe we’ll get to see Master and Commander, the movie), the cooks’ quarters, Bosun’s storage area forward in the bow, and most importantly the galley and the mess hall located mid ship. More to follow about the food… but generally breakfast is 7a.m. to 8 a.m.; lunch is 11 a.m. to noon and dinner is 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Outside in the weather portion of the main deck, we find a hyperbaric chamber for diver emergencies, a large double drum winch for towing operations, a large H-shaped structure through which the towing cable is passed, appropriately named the H-bit, the parachute reels used for booster recovery now stripped down to bare structure, and the Ambar boat. Fixed to the very aft of the stern on the main deck is a formidable device called the Texas bar, some 14 inches in diameter and 30 feet long it serves to help secure the towing cable and to accommodate side to side movement of the tow cable when the ship is underway, as we now are.

The Second Deck
A lot of physical work going on here also and we now are below the water line. Here we find the all important engine room housing the main propulsion for Liberty Star, two main engines made by General Motors providing a total of 2,900 horsepower turning two-six-foot propellers with controllable pitch. Controllable pitch provides greater response time and maneuverability. The engines generate 900 revolutions per minute (rpm) at full speed and at idle about 400 rpm. The Chief Engineer and the Assistant Engineer share continuous six hour watches monitoring the engines. Without these engines, Liberty Star could be in trouble. We also find two DD871 generators for providing electrical power for the vessel.

Aft of the engine room is the very aft end of the ship, a very cramped area called the lazarette. Here the rudder posts and steering gear are located.

Forward of the engine room is the engineer workshop. Here we find a fire suppression system for the engine room (Aarg!), more tools, and more fire-fighting equipment (Aarg!). Actually there some ten fire fighting stations located throughout the ship (Aarg!) and numerous fire extinguishers (Aarg!). Actually, all this fire-fighting equipment is a good thing; ready for any emergency and safety first.

Also, throughout the ship we find numerous hand-held telephones powered only by sound; electricity not needed. Ships can lose power. The Army has similar phones called TA-1/PTs.  You can see what these formidable phones look like in many World War II movies. Forward of the engine room we find nine staterooms for the crew, all simple straightforward sleeping areas with no frills and shower and bathroom facilities.

Also, we encounter one of the ship’s manually operated watertight doors, which I presume is only used when you are torpedoed (Aarg!) I immediately have a vision of water pouring through the ship, sailors being pulled through doors as they are being cranked closed, like in those World War II movies. Aarg! Too much imagination for one day!

The Freedom Star, sister ship to the Liberty Star. Image Credit: United Space Alliance

That’s the layout of Liberty Star and her sister ship, Freedom Star as well. Neat little hard-working ships. Spiffy. Ship-shape, just like you would expect. I’ll never sail on a cruise ship again. Too big!

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.