FreightWaves Flashback 1982: Bringing home the boosters

The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each Friday, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

The following is an excerpt from the May 1982 edition of The Jacksonville Seafarer.

Bringing home the boosters

Ships designed, built, fitted out at Jacksonville are performing well for NASA in shuttle booster recovery program.

After three successful recoveries of the giant booster rockets used to hurl America’s first space shuttle into orbit, NASA technicians, officers of United Technologies Corp. subsidiary United States Boosters Inc., and the crews of the booster-recovery vessels UTC Liberty and UTC Freedom are singing the praises of the Jacksonville-designed, -built and -equipped vessels.

“The vessels have performed exceptionally well and have met all of our expectations,” Captain Dan Risken, master of the Freedom, told The Jacksonville Seafarer. “There have been no problems. We are extremely pleased with the whole operation — the ships and the people [the highly skilled personnel who conduct the recovery of the 84-ton, 124-foot booster casings, frustums and parachutes off the Florida coast].”

The ships were designed by Rudolph Matzer & Associates of Jacksonville, built by Atlantic Marine Inc. of nearby Fort George Island, and equipped by a number of Jacksonville firms, including D.W. Anderson Inc., which furnished and installed the Carrier Transicold refrigeration and air conditioning equipment aboard the vessels. 

Risken and his fellow skipper aboard the Liberty are in command of the vessels during recovery operations, but overall responsibility for the entire operation is with Anker Rasmussen, USB’s manager of marine operations.

Working under Rasmussen, in addition to the ship’s crews, are 12 highly trained divers and other specialists.

On some missions, as in the second recovery of the boosters 160 miles off Cape Canaveral in November, the crews more than earn their pay.

30-foot swells, 18-foot seas

“We had 30-foot swells and 18-foot seas,” Risken said. “The boosters were surging up and down very much.”

“Storm conditions … caused a hydraulic action within the boosters that had the surging up and down between 20 and 36 feet,” explained Rasmussen. “For the divers, it was like trying to catch hold of a high-speed elevator in a three-story building.”

Conditions were so rough that the recovery operation, which Risken said normally takes about four hours, took more than 13 hours.

Recovery operation

The recovery operation is intended to retrieve not only the boosters, but their frustums — the containers housing the parachutes that lower the boosters into the sea — and the chutes themselves.

When the 176-foot recovery vessels pull alongside the parachutes, a swimmer attaches a line so they can be hauled aboard by the ships’ stern winches.

Getting the boosters aboard is nowhere near as simple.

The boosters, which at launch contain over one million pounds of solid rocket propellant, float vertically, with the nozzles at their ends anywhere from 90 to 120 feet below the surface.

Five divers motor in an inflatable boat to each booster, where three of them go into the water and swim down to the nozzle. There, they insert specially designed retrieval booms into the nozzles.

The boom is generally installed in about eight minutes, and air is pumped through a trailing hose into the casings to force the water from them and produce enough buoyancy so that they tip over into the water in a near-horizontal position.

Meanwhile, the parachutes are being recovered and the frustums, which separate from the boosters themselves at about 6,200 feet, are hauled aboard the vessels by winches.

The trip home

Once the parachutes and frustums are aboard and the boosters are “laid down,” they are taken in tow by the recovery vessels for the almost-200-mile trip back to Port Canaveral, the vessels’ home port.

“Initially, we take them to Port Canaveral, up the Banana River to an Air Force base, which is being leased by NASA,” said Risken. “There they are lifted from the water by a large sling-crane very similar to a straddle lift. They are taken to a USB facility, where technicians refurbish them for the next flight.”

The reuse of the booster casings saves the government millions and is an integral part of the Space Shuttle program, as well as the raison d’etre for the Freedom and the Liberty.

“It’s a different story now from the days when a rocket motor went up and was discarded after only that use,” said Paul Donnelly, vice president of Florida operations for United Space Boosters. “With the shuttle, the boosters can be used again and again, and that means economy for NASA’s new space transportation system.”

On station

Risken said that the crews of the two recovery vessels, unlike the millions of Floridians and visitors who flock to the Cape on launch day, have yet to see their first shuttle launch.

The Liberty and the Freedom leave port about two days before the launch to reach their duty station offshore.

The fun for the retrieval crew begins about two minutes after launch, when — at an altitude of about 31 miles — the used boosters, their fuel spent, are blown away from the shuttle orbiter by small-fuel rocket motors and the descent to the surface of the ocean begins.

Normally, the recovery operation begins as soon as the boosters and their parachutes and frustums hit the water. On the November recovery, however, the recovery attempt was postponed until the second day after launch, as the Liberty and the Freedom rode out the foul weather and waited for calmer seas to begin retrieval operations.

Oceanographic research

The major function of the two ships, of course, is recovering the boosters. But Risken said that the vessels had also been used on a subcontract basis in oceanographic research work for private firms like oil companies and for the Navy.

The ships were designed with such a dual role in mind.