SRB Recovery Ships Oral
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida – 11 April 2012
is April 11th, 2012. This oral history is being conducted with John
Fischbeck for the SRB [solid rocket booster] Recovery Ships Oral History
Project at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Hangar AF, in Florida.
Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal. I’d
like to start by asking you to give us a brief overview of your career,
and then how you became part of this operation. I know it was a while
Like yesterday. Unbelievable, it’s gone by so fast. I was sailing
on a ship out of Port Canaveral in 1978, 1979. I was the chief mate
on a small cargo ship, and we sailed from Port Canaveral downrange
to the Caribbean Sea. We were actually at the time dismantling all
of the downrange sites that supported the manned spaceflight before
Just by chance one day I walked into our dispatching office, which
was in Port Canaveral at the Army terminal there. There was a lady
there who I got the cargo manifest from for each two week trip. I
asked her by any chance was she aware of any maritime jobs in this
area. Melbourne [Florida] in 1978 wasn’t a big maritime community.
Port Canaveral wasn’t as developed as it is today; the West
Basin wasn’t even in existence. She said that there was a fellow
who was hiring people for the two SRB retrieval ships at [NASA] Kennedy
Space Center to support the upcoming Shuttle program. I got the name
of the individual to contact and made an appointment to come to Hangar
I interviewed for a second mate’s job on—it was then called
UTC Liberty. UTC stood for United Technologies Corporation. They had
charge of the vessels at that time. We were United Technologies employees
for three years, until the main Shuttle processing contract changed
about 1984. I came aboard here in August of 1980 as second mate on
the UTC Liberty.
At that time the two ships were at Atlantic Marine in Jacksonville,
Florida, and they were still under construction. The UTC Liberty was
the first one finished, which was in about October/November of 1980.
UTC Freedom was about January/February of 1981. There was some urgency
because the first space launch was in April of ’81. When the
two ships finally got down here we had 10 people on each crew. Nobody
else in the world had done what we were about to do. We couldn’t
call up some company and say, “How do you guys retrieve rockets?”
Nobody had the faintest clue what to do, so we had a model made of
a solid rocket booster. We called it the Ocean Test Fixture, OTF.
It was our training aid. It was the same length and width as a regular
solid rocket. So we started practicing. Out of a month we’d
spend two or three weeks at sea. We were on an accelerated course
to get all of our personnel and divers up to speed on how to do something
we had no idea how to do and couldn’t ask anybody how to do.
We had to learn the whole thing ourselves; it was pretty interesting,
By the time the first Shuttle mission went off we had success in bringing
the two frustums, the six main parachutes, the two drogue parachutes,
and the solid rocket boosters back into Port Canaveral. Not to get
ahead of the story, but that process never ended until the last Shuttle
mission. We were constantly revamping, reviewing, renewing our procedure
to A) make it safer, B) make it more efficient, and C) make it more
Also during that 30-year period we had a number of personnel changes,
so every time somebody left we lost tribal knowledge. We had somebody
new who’d come on, and we were years ahead of where they might
be. You had to start over with new people.
there other details that you can tell us about how you were able to
define those processes? You mentioned that this isn’t anything
that anybody had done before.
Well, first of all, we had to get the crew stabilized. We had 10 people
from all different backgrounds. Some of the guys had military backgrounds,
some had merchant marine backgrounds. Some of the nonlicensed people—officers
are licensed by the [U.S.] Coast Guard, and the nonlicensed people
just have ratings like ordinary seaman or able seaman—they were
from all different backgrounds. Everybody had to somehow get on the
same page, and that was one of our biggest challenges, getting everybody
focused on what our job was going to be when these two solid rocket
boosters hit the water.
We didn’t even have a picture of this. You couldn’t go
back to the archive and look at some video or movie of something that
happened in 1960. It’s true that the capsules came back and
landed in the ocean from the earlier programs, but no rockets came
back. We did a lot of brainstorming, and we did a lot of butting our
heads against dead ends because sometimes our plan didn’t work.
Of course the paramount objective was keeping it as safe as possible.
We worked with that Ocean Test Fixture. We made a frustum that was
the same size as the flight model. The parachute facility gave us
some practice parachutes. We’d go out and train with these things.
Meanwhile a lot of the divers that we had weren’t certified
to do what we were doing. A lot of them had sport diving certifications;
very few of them had professional certifications. This was all scuba
diving to a depth of 130 feet, but these guys had never done that
The Ocean Test Fixture—they would have to dive down to 110 feet
or so to get to the bottom of this thing, then insert the diver-operated
plug, which was the cork in the bottle so to speak. We had to develop
that process. The early version was an aluminum pole that was positioned
at the nozzle of the rocket, and an air hose was connected to it from
the ship. It was called a BARB, which is ballast aerating retrieval
boom. That was the first diver-operated plug, extremely simple. It
worked, but it was extremely simple.
The problem was that when we finally pumped enough water out of the
booster to have it come over from vertical to horizontal, which was
what we call “semilog.” That means it wasn’t totally
dewatered. It’s down by the nozzle end like this [demonstrates],
which was the most water we could get out of it. We had all sorts
of problems with that in practice and during the towbacks. We used
that BARB device for a few of the early launches.
In a rough sea sometimes the action of the SRBs with the BARB being
towed by the ship going over six- or eight-foot swells caused the
SRB to stand up, to go vertical again. When that happened a few things
had to be done in a hurry. You had to stop the ship because you had
a towline connected to it and the SRB, and you also had an air hose
connected to it. If you broke either of those, then you had to start
all over again.
We were always concerned about the towline breaking; we had to watch
that the whole time we were coming back. The towline didn’t
break, but if the air hose broke you had to repair it. We’d
be out there another two days doing that, then you had to start the
air going to it again. We had a lot of trouble with that. Not that
it didn’t work—it was the sea state sometimes which made
it difficult to get the BARB positioned without the SRB going spar.
Spar was vertical, and log was horizontal.
After roughly six or eight missions we developed a new diver-operated
plug, which actually filled the nozzle. If you look in the east side
of the hangar, there’s four of them out there in the parking
lot. That’s the end result of the diver-operated plugs, which
really were way superior to what we started out with. But that was
part of the process. That was part of what we did, develop a better
safer way to do things. Larry [F.] Collins was instrumental in all
that, because he was our lead diver throughout this whole process.
He was hands on. He’d be down at depth inserting the DOP [diver-operated
The first DOP, compared to the BARB, was a big help. The DOP is basically
the cork in the bottle. We would insert the diver-operated plug, and
it would fit tightly in the nozzle. Then we would pump air into the
booster through a quick disconnect on the DOP and water would be ejected
through the center. When the booster went vertical, into log mode,
we would pump all the water out of it.
We didn’t need the air hose on tow-back anymore. That made the
towing exponentially easier, because we didn’t have to worry
about the swells pushing the SRB vertical again. That configuration
remained throughout the whole program, with some improvements along
you want to talk about those first few missions, especially the first
The first mission was April of ’81. Actually it was a nice day,
sea wasn’t rough at all. We had great anticipation, as did the
whole country. However, there was a little issue that went along with
that. In the 1980s, we were still engaging in—I don’t
know if you want to call it a Cold War, but it was the cat and mouse
game with the Eastern Bloc countries. The Russians had a trawler out
here the whole time we were practicing. I don’t mean a fishing
boat trawler, I mean a trawler that had enough antennas sticking up
on it a bird couldn’t have gotten through it.
They would shadow us all the time. They’d come in three miles—the
U.S. waters go out to three miles—and they’d stop. Well,
sure enough on the launch day, the Russian trawler is right where
the boosters are supposed to land. In the first number of launches
there was a Coast Guard cutter, a Navy ship, a couple of Air Force
and Coast Guard planes that were on station with us. When the boosters
actually landed in the water and the two ships, the Liberty and the
Freedom got to them, the Russian trawler was practically right in
front of us in our way. We stopped because we don’t have jurisdiction
on the high seas to tell anybody what to do, but the Coast Guard does.
We talked to the Coast Guard cutter on the radio. We’d worked
with them before, so we knew each other. The Russian trawler put up
International Code of Signals flags, which basically said I am broken
down, unable to maneuver. There’s the International Code of
Signals book that every ship has. It’s a common language among
all mariners that certain flags mean certain things, and it’s
universal so everybody can understand it. Books might be printed in
different languages, but the meaning is the same.
The Coast Guard sent up a flag signal that said, “What is the
nature of your problem?” All this is taking about 45 minutes,
so it was a good thing it was a nice day. They sent a signal back
saying that their engines won’t answer the controls. So the
Coast Guard sent up another signal that said, “We’ll come
and tow you.” As soon as they sent that signal, a swirl of water
appeared behind the Russian trawler as their propellers got engaged,
and they moved off out of the way.
It was just a little show. They got out of the way, half a mile, and
they sat there. I’m sure they were monitoring all our frequencies,
because they were developing their shuttle, I believe, at the time.
They watched that whole process. We got everything done and came in,
and I don’t think after that the Russians actually got in the
way of any mission, but they were around. They would follow us around
a bit. I don’t know which mission it was or whether it was when
the Berlin Wall came down, but somewhere they gave up on the Shuttleski
and tracking us. It was quite a time, maybe six or eight missions
after that where they didn’t show up anymore.
After that, the only things that would possibly get in the way would
be another merchant ship transiting our area, and we would keep track
of that. That was one of our jobs, to track all vessels from about
48 miles in to the impact area. We would be in contact with the range
and the launch director as well as our own office here, and we would
plot with our radars all these ships to make sure that everybody’s
out of the way. That always worked out okay.
On STS-4, something happened to the parachutes on descent. I don’t
know the exact engineering reason, you’re going to have to ask
an engineer. I believe the parachutes were supposed to release on
impact. As the parachutes were streaming down, the three main parachutes
for the boosters—instead of slowly opening they opened prematurely,
so the booster went like this [demonstrates] when they all opened.
The booster thought it hit the water and released the parachutes a
couple thousand feet up, so both boosters hit the surface and sank
in 3,000 feet of water.
We went out later with a company that had some submersible tethered
vehicles with side-scan sonar, and we located the boosters. They took
pictures and got data and turned that over to NASA, but the problem
was not the booster. The problem was the parachute release, so they
changed that process. They open slowly, streaming they call it. Other
than STS-4 where they actually lost the boosters, no other booster
was lost until Challenger [STS 51-L accident].
you tell us about your experiences that day and then salvage after?
Challenger—everybody that was here, on land, had a crystal clear
cold day. We were out 120, 130 miles east of here. The reason it was
such a cold day here is because a cold front had come through. This
is January 28th, 1986. Really cold day, there was ice on the launch
towers. Out there where we were, that front came through a day or
two before. We had gone through 60-mile-an-hour winds out there for
two days. It was one of the worst sea states we had been in, in fact
that might have been the worst.
That was the worst nontropical storm I’ve ever been in. A wintertime
cold front, but there was a heck of a pressure gradient behind it
of wind. It was so bad that we couldn’t even turn the ships.
We had to keep our bow into the waves for two days. I remember I went
on watch two days, and the wind never got below 60. The waves were
15 to 25 feet. It was so rough on the ship’s bow, it cracked
the paint on the deck. The ship was working so much the ocean washed
away a lot of gear. We were about 30 miles from where we were supposed
to be, but we couldn’t even turn around. We couldn’t do
anything except keep our bow into it and hope you don’t get
When the wind finally started easing back, we started heading toward
our station, MSP. It’s a mission support position, you’ll
hear that term. That mission support position was where we’re
assigned to be. We were about 30-odd miles from that. They went ahead
and launched, and of course the accident happened, which we didn’t
see. The Gulf Stream starts 30 miles east of here, and it’s
30 miles wide, so we were way on the other side of the Gulf Stream.
As we got back near the Gulf Stream that morning, the water temperature
could have been in the 70s. Well, you had freezing air coming over
it. That creates fog, so we were in pea soup fog out there. Everybody
thought it was strange, because here on land it was crystal clear.
We couldn’t see anything; we didn’t see a darn thing at
We were trying to get ourselves put back together after being in the
storm for two days. We had gear all over the aft deck. Our small boats
had gotten moved. Some of the cradles got bashed in. We had to check
the cranes, the parachute reels, the DOPs. We had two DOPs per ship,
and it’s a wonder they were still there. Everything inside was
turned upside down. Everything that could come loose was loose. We
had a major cleanup going.
We heard the launch countdown. We had radio communications with Launch
Control and our office here. They said there was an explosion, so
we went to our station and started searching. All we could see in
the water was some foam, which you see anyway. That’s part of
what’s on the boosters. We didn’t see anything big sink.
We were still out 130 miles, and that’s not where the capsule
The boosters came down out near the MSP, so we spent a day or two
out there then everybody came in. By that point it was going to become
a multiagency search effort. They had to find out where things were
in order to find out what happened, so it ended up we had about nine
ships. The Navy was rotating submarine rescue vessels in with divers.
There were some private vessels that were chartered by the Navy Supervisor
of Salvage and Diving, and everybody had sonar.
Our two ships had side-scan sonar, and we were directed to go back
out to where the boosters were thought to have impacted. We operated
side-scan sonar in 3,000 feet of water. Maybe a month and a half,
going about three knots, dragging the sonar “fish” down
5,000 feet behind us. You had to go slow with this, so it took it
a long time to get all the data together.
Eventually we located the boosters. They were split in half, and it
was not feasible to try and raise them. It’s pitch-black at
3,000 feet. They could see from the sonar resolution pretty much how
they were lying, how many pieces. Then we stopped doing that and we
came in-shore to where the reef line is here, along with the other
ships, and everybody had an area to search.
During the month and a half or so that we were doing that, the ships
in shallower water had located a good deal of data, pieces of equipment.
It wasn’t just Shuttle stuff out there, it was stuff that had
been accumulating ever since someone threw the first beer can in the
water. All objects were marked by latitude and longitude and description.
The data print-out was double-sided—it’s about half inch,
inch thick, single-spaced. Latitude, longitude, apparent description
of every single thing nine ships found out there in about six months.
Every one of those things had to be prosecuted. That is, had to have
eyes-on identification or raised to the surface. I’m talking
about things that were in less than 100 feet of water. We located—we
meaning the whole group—everything from beer cans to airplanes
to all the rockets that went in the water out here in the 20 or 30
years prior to that. Also, in the process, one of the submarine rescue
vessels located the Shuttle’s crew cabin.
It was interesting how I got involved with that, because we were locating
stuff all the time, and we were bringing it up to the surface if it
was small. All recovered objects were brought into the port and turned
over to NASA. The day that it happened—that the submarine rescue
vessel located the crew cabin—nothing was said on the radio.
By that time I felt that the press was listening to some of our frequencies,
and our operations didn’t want that broadcast.
That particular day, I’m on the Liberty. I had been out there
maybe two or three weeks. We’re rotating the crew one by one,
and I was due to come in for two to three days. There were nine ships
out there, different sizes. There was a little boat that SUPSALV,
Supervisor of Salvage, had hired, a crew boat that would come to each
ship, bring the newspaper, bring supplies, carry people back and forth.
We were the farthest out, so I got on board the crew boat there first
in the morning. By the time we went to all the other eight ships it
was sunset, so I spent the first day of my day off riding to all the
other ships on this little boat.
We’re coming into the port through the jetties, and it’s
dark. The boat slows down. It’s just a 60-foot diesel-powered
crew boat. It’s not a comfort thing. It’s like riding
in a school bus. We’re following behind the submarine rescue
boat, with no lights on. Since I’m a mariner, usually you don’t
run without navigation lights on, so I’m starting to put two
and two together. I’m thinking, “Hmm, this is strange.”
The submarine rescue boat tied up in the Middle Basin at the Navy
Poseidon pier, which still exists there. My car was parked in the
parking lot nearby, so I told the guy driving the boat, “Just
put your bow against the dock there, and I’ll hop off.”
He did that, and soon as I got off the bow he backs up. I took about
three steps, and about four security guys see me and put their flashlights
on me. They say, “Where are you going? Where’s your ID
[identification]?” I show them my badge, said, “My car
is right over here. I’ve been out there on the ship.”
He said, “Go to your car and depart.” That’s when
I figured something was up.
Sure enough, that was the time when they had found the crew capsule,
and they were bringing it in and then turning it over. Of course I
didn’t stay for any of that, but that’s what happened.
It was interesting that I saw the actual arrival of it, and of course
it came out in the news later that they had located it. Other than
that though, we spent until the first part of December of 1986, basically
a year on that accident.
have spent most of your adult life working on the sea. Tell us about
these ships and how different they were from what you had worked on
before, and their capabilities.
Good question. These ships are interesting. They’re 180 feet
long, so they’re not big. A boat is defined as something you
can pick up and put on a ship, so when we say these are ships, they
are ships in that you put boats on these ships. I was on an aircraft
carrier for three years. That’s a ship. You could probably pick
these ships up and put them on an aircraft carrier. 180-foot is not
big, but it’s amazing how well they do in some of the sea states
that we got into over the years.
These ships were built specifically for this job. The model of these
ships was similar to a model that existed. I think it was University
of Miami [Coral Gables, Florida] that had a research vessel that had
similar lines as the Liberty and the Freedom. A naval architect in
Jacksonville, Rodney [E.] Lay and [Associates], took the design that
we suggested and they modified it. That went through a process of
looking at it, and then changing it, looking at it and changing it.
That was actually before I got here, that was going on before I came.
When I came the actual construction was almost completed.
For example, there is a stern thruster, which most ships don’t
have, except the newer passenger vehicles have thrusters instead of
propellers now. Stern thrusters for small ships, usually you don’t
have them. The reason we had the stern thruster was because the EPA
[Environmental Protection Agency] said that if you’re going
to transit the Canaveral locks, and you’re going to come up
into the Hangar AF basin, then you’re now entering in the wildlife
There’s manatees in the river. You’re not going to be
turning propellers in the Banana River with the manatees. You’re
going to have to come up with something else. That was one of the
big changes to the original plan, to put a stern thruster on each
ship. The stern thruster is basically like a manhole that’s
louvered. It’s a water jet that sucks in water and blows out
water. It can propel the ship in the ocean maybe three or four knots.
We can go up and down the river about three or four knots, but we’re
not turning the propellers.
As it turned out, over the years the stern thruster ended up being
a big help to us. When we got to practicing with divers going over
the side and launching inflatable boats that the divers go in and
out of all the time, and when we’re in the proximity of a parachute
being held up by float balls so it doesn’t sink when we detach
it from the booster—if we had been turning propellers at that
time, it would have made it a whole lot harder, and a lot more dangerous.
We would just secure the main engines—or secure the shaft from
turning—and then use the stern thruster. That was perfect for
retrieval, it ended up being really a good thing.
We have a bow thruster, which most merchant ships have. Between the
bow thruster and the stern thruster, we had total maneuverability
at slow speed in proximity of divers and of flight hardware. That
was a great by-product of the EPA saying put stern thrusters on. Early
on, before we started practicing, we were just saying okay, stern
thruster is for going up and down the river, but it turned out to
be really good.
The other construction that was different was the deck layout being
a fairly open aft deck. That was to accommodate the four parachute
reels and the crane and the tow winch and the DOP launchers and the
air hose reel, which took up quite a bit of space back there. That
equipment had to be lined up so each of those components could do
their job at the same time. While we’re bringing in parachutes
on the reel we might be putting a DOP over the side or launching a
boat. While we’re bringing in the air hose we might be putting
out the towline. All equipment had to be organized so it could do
That was the product of a lot of planning and scrutiny during the
process of designing where the components would go. As I said earlier,
nobody had done this. We had to take a good look at it, because once
those components got put on—for example the parachute reels
have all under-the-deck hydraulic lines going to them, the crane has
hydraulic lines going to it, the DOP launcher has hydraulic lines
going to it.
The small boats have to be picked up by the main deck crane. We had
to make sure that the reach of the main deck crane would be such that
it could get to the area where the small boat was. The small boat
had to be out of the way of the air hose going past it, in front of
the DOP launcher so it got a little protection from the sea in rough
conditions. All these things had to go on at the same time and be
If you were to put all that equipment on deck and then change it,
you would have to go back to the shipyard and move all the hydraulic
lines and cut holes in the deck. That’s another two months.
We really didn’t want to have an opportunity to go back up there,
especially since the first launch was coming up. Our main objective
was to get trained.
Fortunately we had good prior planning and a good location and some
practice. All that equipment was in the right place. It never did
get moved, so that was a good testament to the fact that it was done
right the first time. Of course our process refined itself because
people who stayed got better at what they did, and we improved a lot
of things. We improved the small boats, we improved the hydraulic
lines, we improved the reels for the parachutes. We improved the main
tow winch. We improved some of the equipment we used. We got safer
equipment, newer equipment over the years. As I mentioned, it was
an evolutionary process that went on to the last mission. We were
still making things better.
the ships out of commission at any length of time due to some type
of problem or overall long-term maintenance?
The ships go out of commission once every three or once every five
years for a required mandated Coast Guard and American Bureau of Ships
(ABS) inspection that says you will take the boats out of water. ABS
will check the through-hull fittings that go from the inside to the
outside, where seawater comes in or goes out. The shafts, the propellers,
the main engines, the generators—all that gets inspected. All
the lifesaving equipment gets inspected; all the navigation equipment
Our licenses have to be renewed every five years. We carried medical
supplies on board, and they had to be turned back in to OHF [Occupational
Health Facility] at KSC and then reissued. A log is kept of all that.
Other than the required yard period, which usually lasted maybe three
weeks—and we always planned those in a downtime in between launches.
Another thing that started up—the external tank barge is a unique
barge. It has a cover over it and looks like a floating covered wagon.
We decided that we could tow that from Michoud [Assembly Facility,
New Orleans,] Louisiana to the Kennedy Space Center cheaper than what
NASA was paying a commercial tugboat to do. We approached NASA with
our pitch and gave them some figures, showing we could do it a lot
About 1996 we started with the two ships towing the external tank
back and forth. To do that we had to augment our tow reel, because
the tow winch and tow wire that we used for the rockets was not big
enough to support towing the barge. We looked in the industry, and
there was what they call a waterfall array of a tow winch. It was
two together. The upper one had a lighter-gauge wire on it for the
boosters, and the bottom one had a wire two or three inches in diameter.
Much heavier gauge, much stronger winch, used to tow the barge. We
had basically one structure, two different reels.
A few of our guys had had experience towing, so we had some knowledge
base of how to do that job. That wasn’t as new to us as starting
out recovering solid rocket boosters. We got involved with the process
of towing the external tank barge back and forth to Michoud. When
it got into Port Canaveral, we had to use two tugboats because you
can’t tow an external tank barge on the Banana River. It’s
280 feet long, 50 feet wide, with a hard cover over it. That’s
a lot of windage.
You can’t just have a two boat in front towing, because the
barge gets away from you. We would transit from the harbor to the
drawbridge, and then would get in and out of the Canaveral locks.
Next, we would transit through the NASA causeway bridge. Our ships
made it up to the VAB [Vehicle Assembly Building] basin for the open
house sometimes, but we had to go really slowly. For the barge we
used a tug in front and a tug in back made up right to the aft end
of the barge, integrated with the barge. The aft tug acted as the
rudders. The barge didn’t have any propulsion of its own. It
had no rudders, no propellers. It only had two generators on it for
lights and running the stove and the air conditioning.
That was one of my jobs. I was pilot of that barge from the port to
the VAB basin and back. That’s about a four-, five-hour trip.
That was way harder to me than anything we did at sea, because I had
to be on a radio talking to both those tugboats. You couldn’t
do it if the wind was blowing more than 18 miles an hour, because
the barge would start going sideways. You can’t have that happen
going through the bridge and the locks near the port and going through
the NASA causeway bridge up here. When we went through these bridges,
there’d be maybe eight feet clearance on either side of the
barge. The river all the way up to the VAB basin is not a straight
line, so we had a few times when it was really difficult with the
The tug guys would do what I would say. The guy in front would be
fairly close to the barge because the further he was away, the more
the barge could swing behind, so you had to keep that line short.
On either side of that channel, from here to the VAB basin, the water
is about two feet deep, so you can’t be falling asleep at the
wheel. You can’t have the line too long. The problem is if you
have it short like we had it, and the guy in front doesn’t pay
attention and runs aground, the barge is going to go right into him.
That happened once. We were going around the last turn up there, and
the guy took it too wide. He stopped, and I yelled, “Full astern
to the tug behind!” But you’re going four knots, you can’t
stop. It’s like trying to stop a freight train engine or a ship.
It doesn’t stop but keeps going for a bit. So we kept going.
We glanced off of the lead tug and went off to the side and broke
his towline. Finally the stern tug stopped us. Lucky the bow tug didn’t
get run over.
I told the tug company you got to send people down here that have
some experience. While I’m the pilot, that tugmaster is still
responsible for his tug. If I say come a little bit more to the left
or stay in the middle and he doesn’t do it, then it’s
on him. We got to the point where the guys coming down were repeating
the trip. They all knew what to do, so that didn’t happen again.
The tugboat guy in back couldn’t see anything, because he’s
looking at the back of the barge. He’s my rudders, so I’m
telling him a little bit to the left, back to midship, little to the
right, midship, little to the left, little bit more left. That’s
going on for five hours. I had to have another guy that I trained,
another one of the mates on our ships, because it was too much for
one person. It was constant attention. Just because they would send
the same guys back doesn’t mean they’d all be paying attention.
A couple times guys tried to cut corners, so you had to watch them.
Fortunately that whole river bottom is mostly mud, so you really didn’t
hurt anything, you just stopped. The hard part was keeping it in the
middle of the channel if it was windy. And of course the operation
is really visible. If that barge had hit the iceberg that sank the
[RMS] Titanic, it wouldn’t have hurt that barge. That thing
had a double hull; it was thick. It had dents all over, because tugboats
push barges. It’s like that guy that said tires are ugly. Well,
barges are ugly too. You just tow stuff with a barge. You push it
around and bang it, never hurt it at all.
We did that operation to the last tank with success. We had a permanent
crew on the barge. We had four guys on the barge that kept the maintenance
up, and two or three of us were qualified to take it up and down the
river. Then we finished the last tank and brought the barge to KSC
and eventually the barge was moved to Stennis Space Center [Mississippi].
There was an issue during Columbia [STS-107 accident] where the foam
was a problem. I think there were three tanks here that had to go
back to Michoud. When that happened, an interesting thing happened.
Up to that point they always had a couple tanks here ahead of where
they needed them in the “flow” of integration in one of
the load cells in the VAB. They’d have an extra tank here, so
we’d always go get a tank after a launch.
Usually there’d be maybe three months, four months between launches,
so there was plenty of time to schedule our barge trip, which took
about 11 days to do the round trip. It was one ship, but we had time
to do that. It was not a rush on this end. After they sent those three
tanks back—and they sent them back pretty quick, probably within
two or three months—we did some extra trips.
We had to get these tanks back to Michoud because they wanted to look
at the foam process, the glue on it or something. When that happened
they had no tanks here, so every tank that we brought from Michoud
to here was what they called on critical path, which the tanks never
were before. Tanks were on critical path once they got here, but suddenly
the transportation became critical path. That means every time that
tank is delayed it’s a launch delay, so it’s like day
for day. That put a couple pressure points on us. Michoud would give
us the date for a tank to be ready, and sometimes it wouldn’t
be the correct date. We would have to try to schedule a ship to go
get the barge or take the barge from here back out there to get the
tank, but you had to schedule a lot of support on each side. I had
two tugs on this end.
After Hurricane Katrina went through New Orleans they closed the MRGO,
which is an acronym for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. That was
a straight line from Michoud out to the Gulf. It wasn’t built
for Michoud, it was built to ease the traffic load on the lower Mississippi
River. It was really a great thing. It was very wide, very deep, big
major ocean liners could go up and down it.
It happened that it ended at the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, practically
at the Michoud basin, so it was a big help for us. That was a straight
line 60 miles long, a straight line from the Gulf of Mexico through
the Spoil Islands, ending right at the Michoud basin. After Katrina
they decided a lot of the storm surge came up through this 60-mile
piece of water, so they were going to close it off. [U.S. Army] Corps
of Engineers started putting out all these notices. They had meetings
for about a year. Eventually, two or three years after Katrina, they
started closing the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet off.
We had to take the ship and barge to Gulfport, Mississippi, leave
the ship there. Two tugs had to come from New Orleans, take the barge
on about a 12-hour trip. They’d have to bring the barge with
two tugs on the Intracoastal Waterway, the ICW, from Michoud to Gulfport.
Then when the barge got to Gulfport the tugs to connect it to the
ship take it to Port Canaveral, transfer it to the two tugs, and bring
it to the VAB.
Meanwhile I had to get line handlers; I had to notify the bridge tenders.
This Roy Bridges [Jr.] Bridge is not manned; we had to call people
to get it manned. Then you had to let everybody in the ET [external
tank] world know that the barge had arrived. It was a big deal getting
it all scheduled. Dates were important, especially if it got to be
a date where sometimes the ship would have to be towing a barge back
here four days before launch. We couldn’t do that. The launch
was really interesting, all the details you gave about that operation
that looks so simple. Can you tell us about your responsibilities
during the missions, and how they changed over the years?
Well, six months after I was here in 1980 I became chief mate on the
Liberty. The second mate’s job is basically in charge of the
navigation and to stand watch while we’re under way at sea.
We all stood watch—captain, chief mate, second mate, as well
as three ordinary seamen or able seamen. There’s two people
on the bridge all the time when the ship is moving. I spent about
10 years as the chief mate and then I was captain of the Liberty for
about two years. That brings us up to about 1992 or ’93. My
boss at the time asked me if I wanted to come up to the hangar and
take over the retrieval operation. I said okay, that would be interesting.
I’d like to do that. So I came off the ship.
I was a little bit sad to do that, come off the ship. I’d spent
11 years on that ship, so it becomes like part of you. It’s
a very tight community, the ship’s crew. At that point as the
years went on, fewer people left, so the learning curve got better
and better. When one or two new people would come, the other eight
or ten people could assimilate the new people a lot easier than we
could in the beginning when it was all new. As more time went on,
the longevity of personnel increased
Because it is a unique job—it’s a good job, interesting
job, every mission was different. I did all but two missions. There
were 135, and I did every mission but two. Every mission was different;
there was something different. The weather different, wind direction,
waves different, visibility different, sea state different, communication
problems, ship problem out there maybe in the impact area. It was
always interesting that way. Of any of the guys that stayed, I don’t
think anybody ever got tired of it. Most people stayed. People that
left left for a number of reasons, but in the end, say the last 20
missions, were basically the people that had been here for a long
time. We had a tremendous amount of knowledge on what we were doing.
They used to call me MOM, which was mission operations manager. The
captains were in charge of their individual ship, the dive supervisor
was in charge of the 10 divers they had under them on each ship. We
had 20 hands-on people on a mission, and then we would take 22 to
24 people—we had observers. We had a NASA observer, maybe we
had a safety observer, and we had a retrieval supervisor on the other
ship. I was the senior retrieval supervisor. My job was to, firstly,
coordinate with the retrieval supervisor on the other ship all the
radio frequencies we were going to use, the order that we were going
to retrieve the hardware—and there was an order involved to
it—then we’d talk to the dive supervisors and find out
who was going to dive. The underwater communications, make sure that
The underwater communications is another thing that we had that’s
rather unique. We had these poles that go down through the deck of
the ship into the water. We can talk to one of our divers underwater
at a distance of maybe a quarter of a mile. That was a big help because
we could keep track of the safety of the divers underwater real-time
with a safety diver, who was the guy we talked to. His only job was
to observe the other divers and communicate what was going on to the
bridge of the ship.
When the time came to depart on a mission, we had a governing document.
It was a retrieval manual, basically an operation that was signed
off by NASA, by our company, by safety, by quality. The order that
we’d do things—that’s the way they do everything
out here, by process. Our’s got developed over the years too.
When I became retrieval supervisor, I got involved with the development
of that manual. As it changed, we had to have it made officially changed.
It used to be called a retrieval manual, then it became a RODS [Routing
Operation Document System] document when we became USA [United Space
Alliance], but it was still the same words.
When we would leave, we would have a certain speed that we’d
need to go to get to our station on time. We would proceed with our
radar observations for about three hours prior to launch, then we
would do our radio communication checks and equipment checks. We had
a recompression hyperbaric chamber on each ship, and that had to be
brought up into operating configuration. We had four lead divers and
a dive supervisor, and those lead divers and the dive supervisor all
were diver medical technicians, DMTs. A couple of them were even paramedics.
These were our only in-house “doctors.” They, in addition
to all the other divers, would go to 40 hours of school every year
on how to operate these chambers. We saved three or four lives over
the years by knowing how to operate the chambers. We had three or
four rescues, local fishermen out there in trouble.
When T-minus zero came and they say “we have liftoff,”
all of our people and all of our equipment had to be right on time,
totally focused, and everything working. I’m happy to say that
was the case every time. We were always ready, except for the Challenger.
The weather knocked us off, but after that we had all of our ducks
in a row.
It took a bit of doing. It’s interesting, our makeup of our
crews. The 10 ship’s crew are permanently assigned to the ship.
That’s what their job is, they maintain the ship. The 10 or
12 technicians, those guys all have other jobs up here in the hangars.
We had welders, we had guys in the machine shop, we had guys from
electric shop. We had four guys out of the dive locker downstairs.
When the ships would come in on a mission, all these guys would go
and work sometimes a month on disassembly.
The ship’s guys stayed there and cleaned up ship, kept painting.
The rest of the crew would come up here and do disassembly, and when
that got over they’d go back to their shops. Put on their tech
[technician] hat and weld or machine or fix dive gear or fix electrical
stuff. I would come back up here and get started getting ready to
do a barge tow, all that organization, then start planning for the
next mission. Our guys were unique in that they all wore three or
I still kept my master mariner’s license up so I could go in
as captain a few times if they needed, but I had to do the whole barge
business, the whole retrieval business. One of the biggest parts of
my job, like any job when you get to the operations level, is the
communication of different groups of people—that and the safety
oversight. Communicating with all these different groups of people
to try to get a barge with a tank in it back in here when NASA wanted
it. Working with outside people, not all government. Michoud people
would deliver it pretty much when they said they were going to.
I had to give the tug guy, the canal barge ops [operations] guy out
there in Louisiana, two to three weeks’ prior notice so he could
get two tugboats. Commercial business doesn’t stand around and
wait for us. If they sit around and wait, they got to get paid for
it. Fortunately, between the tug company in Orlando [Florida] and
the tug company in Jacksonville we had a great working relationship.
We always got the tugs here when we wanted them. If, for example,
I would say get here on the 12th, and the ship was delayed because
of bad weather or maybe the rocket was delayed a day, they would get
paid, but you had to have them here. I had to draw a line in the sand
at some point and say this is the best date I have. That happened
at either end, and that happened fairly often.
I mentioned to you earlier if the launch came up right when we were
supposed to do a barge tow, then we would have to go back and contract
an outside source to do the ocean tow part. The river tow part was
here, the Intracoastal Waterway tow was over there, and the ocean
tow was the long distance leg. It was about a four-day trip one way
from Gulfport around South Florida around the Florida Keys up the
east coast of Florida. That was an expense that had to be borne because
there was no other way around it, they had to get the tank here.
That was all post-Columbia, so those tanks were critical path. They
couldn’t wait for us to go do a mission, come in, and then go
back out to get a tank. NASA had to get the tank here because they
didn’t have extras. That didn’t happen too much, but we
had the contingency to get an outside contractor. That always worked
out okay. Sometimes we had to leave a couple people in here at Hangar
AF to take the barge if it came in when we were still out at sea.
That happened once or twice.
Another interesting experiment we had which had never been done before—I
got to do a couple things here that had never been done before. The
second, other than picking up the rockets, was there was a period
of time, about 2004, when the Canaveral locks had to close down for
a period of about two months in two different times. They had to close
down one six-week or eight-week period to change the doors. The whole
lock gates had to be replaced. They would open the locks for a period
of maybe 10 days, and then they shut down again to do the west side
gates for six weeks.
In that period, 2004, you recall we had Hurricane Charley, Hurricane
Frances, and Hurricane Jean. There was three of them that we got dusted
with. I got asked to submit what I thought would be a plan to take
the barge—you see it on this map over here behind me [demonstrates].
This is the Middle Basin here, and this is the Trident pier where
the Navy is now. Right here the Boeing Company built a pier for when
the Boeing ship came in. They wheel their rockets off, and they take
them up to their facility. We used this dock to tie the barge up sometimes
if it came in too late in the afternoon, and we couldn’t get
up the river. Or, if it was too windy, we would tie the barge up here
and wait till it got calmer. Then we’d take the barge through
the [SR] 401 drawbridge and into the locks. This is the West Basin
where all the cruise ships are.
The question was, with the barge at the Delta Mariner dock, would
it be feasible to offload it so that the tank on its transporter could
travel on? Offload it from up the roadway on the Air Force side, all
the way up to the north end, go across to where the launch pad is,
and then into the VAB. I said yes, we could put the barge there.
Then the question became, could the support people get the “tank
transporter” as they call it, which is motorized—actually
it comes on the barge with the tank. That discussion literally snowballed
into a cast of thousands. I remember at one point—in the LCC
[Launch Control Center] building there’s a conference room,
number P4 or L4. Mike [Michael D.] Leinbach would chair the meeting,
and that room would basically be full. Then there would be people
on telecom from Michoud and from Huntsville [Alabama, NASA Marshall
Space Flight Center] and [NASA] Johnson [Space Center, Houston, Texas]
all listening in.
It evolved into not just physically putting the barge there. We had
to get steel ramps to bridge the gap from the end of the dock—about
15 feet from where the barge had to stop it, to the bulkhead because
it was too shallow up near the bulkhead. We got all the equipment
things, and next it became a security issue. Facilities had to round
some of the corners on the road off. They had to move some of the
overhead power lines. Then the quality and safety community got involved
because the tank had never been delivered this way before, so they
had to go through this whole process and understand it.
I think a couple hurricanes went through here before we actually got
ready to do more. I remember the day we brought the barge back down
the river. We had a transporter on it, but out of wire they made a
mockup of a tank. It didn’t look like anything the way a tank
looks, but it was the same length and the same height and the same
width. It looked like a weird erector set. We rolled this off, and
they had the command vehicle going and all the security. They had
It’s taken about two months to get to this point, and the thing
worked. It went up the road, all the way to the VAB basin. In fact
there’s a certificate right on our hallway wall, on your left
there [demonstrates], a group achievement award that we got for doing
that process. I was asked to accept the award at the center director’s
presentation, which was very nice of Mike Leinbach to ask me to do,
but I accepted it for a whole lot of people. It was a huge effort.
That was fun. That’s one of the things that was new that I liked
about this job. It was interesting, because the Achilles’s heel
of the delivery of an external tank is that drawbridge and those locks.
If they go down, that tank doesn’t get here. Can’t go
down Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) with the barge, it’s too big.
There’s no other way to get it here. Everybody suddenly realized
that, and that’s when all the terrorism business started to
get in the news as well. If somebody hit that bridge, the space program
would stop for a while. That proved the tank could actually be delivered
if we needed to. We did that one test, and that was the end of it.
Then another development—our marine people did this. In the
VAB turn basin, on the south side, there’s four white mooring
balls floating. Those are mooring buoys for the external tank barge.
Before those buoys were put in, every time there was a launch we had
to take the barge and call two more tugs down here from Jacksonville
to take the barge all the way down to the port and leave it there
until the launch. Then call two more tugs to get the barge back to
the VAB Basin. It cost about $50,000 or so to get the two tugs down
here and take the barge back.
Plus, other than the five hours, which isn’t so bad, the early
barges had pointed bows like this [demonstrates]. The Pegasus barge
had a little bit of a flat bow. A pointed bow tends to do yaw back
and forth because water gets on one side of the bow, and it’ll
push it over as it’s going through the water. Really hard to
control the early barges. Finally they got retired because they were
World War II vintage. Pegasus was built in the ’90s and could
be handled much better. Still, it was very subject to windage because
of the cover on it, but it towed better, towed straighter, made my
job a lot easier.
We decided amongst ourselves, “Why can’t we put mooring
up there?” We got approval from the Corps of Engineers. We got
approval from all the environmental people that we wouldn’t
impact anything. On one of these launch pads there were these huge
cement doughnuts, I think they’re three tons apiece, and we
got permission to use four of them. We got them moved and we put one
at a time on the ship, then we lowered them in the water. We had the
locations all mapped out with our GPS [global positioning system]
where we wanted to put them.
They had a hollow in the middle like a doughnut. We put chain around
them, and our divers went down. The water is not deep, only 30 feet
there, but you can’t see anything while the divers shackled
the chain together. Then we brought the chain nearer to the surface,
shackled that to a wire, brought the wire further up, and put those
buoys on it. So now when we had to move the barge, we only had to
take it across the basin to the mooring buoys.
Then we got what we call push boats. If you go over there now you’ll
see two very non-marine-looking little gray square boats that the
Navy gave us from the [Naval Submarine Base] Kings Bay [Georgia].
They didn’t want them somehow, and one of our guys got wind
that they were getting rid of them so we got them. Those boats now
eliminated the need to spend $50,000 to get the tugboats down here.
We could push the barge across the basin, which took about 20 minutes,
between all four mooring buoys. One of our outboard motorboats would
take the mooring lines from the barge, two in the front, two in the
back, and the barge just sat there. With nobody on it, it was fine.
That lasted from about 2005 until now. That was a big money saving
and saved a lot of time.
Always interesting to me why we had to move the barge for a launch.
The reason was the television people, the media people, at the launch
site where all the trailers are. Earlier on, prior to 2000, we said
we’re not moving it. We made a unilateral decision, “We’re
not going to move the barge. This is a pain.” This is when we
had to go up and down the river with it. We got to about a week before
we had to leave for a launch, and somebody at NASA called my boss
and said, “You’re going to move the barge.” We said
“Why?” “Because the head of one of the networks
has a friend in Washington [D.C.], and if that barge isn’t moved
he’s going to call his friend in Washington, and it’s
not going to be good for anybody.” So we had to move the barge.
One day not long ago, probably in the last three or four years, I
asked one of our PAO [public affairs office] people if she could provide
me with really the reason why. The reason we had to move the barge
was because the barge was considered “foreground clutter.”
We were “foreground clutter,” official definition. If
the launch was from Pad A, the barge was out of the way. If the launch
was from Pad B, then they had to pan a little bit more this way, so
now we would be “foreground clutter.”
However, to our way of thinking, the barge is part and parcel of the
Shuttle program. To me, it might have been interesting if somebody
said that’s how the tank gets here. But they never did that,
we were just “foreground clutter.” Over the 30 years of
launching Shuttles, somebody spent a whole lot of money to move the
“foreground clutter.” Probably could have flown another
two years without paying for the “foreground clutter”
to be moved. And all the time it took us to do that, especially going
up and down the river.
We caught a lot of fish over the years, fishing out there waiting
for launches. We had a couple accidents, one interesting accident.
Not for the guy that had it, but a unique kind of accident I guess
you could say. We got out there, had a decent weather day, and the
launch was delayed. Since we were in pretty close proximity to the
eastern side of the Gulf Stream, we decided we’d just go fishing.
So we start trolling; guys are putting out lines and fishing. For
some reason the dolphin were really biting that day. I don’t
mean the kind that breathe dolphin, the fish dolphin [mahi-mahi].
We caught 25 or 30 dolphin in the course of that day. Also there was
a Navy frigate out there at the time that was on station. It happened
to be pretty close to us. We could see it. One of our guys, in the
process of cleaning a dolphin, puts the dolphin on the deck.
On one side of the back deck you’ll see all this wood. That’s
called dunnage in maritime parlance, and dunnage is basically something
you put on the deck to protect something that gets put on it. The
wood has more give than steel when you’re setting a frustum
on it with a crane. Also it’s not slippery, and you can take
off and put it back. These guys are back there on the dunnage. It’s
not rough or anything. It’s a nice sunny day. They put the fish
down. They’ve got a decent dolphin, maybe ten-pounds.
He takes his knife, this fishing knife, and he’s going to go
put it to the head of the dolphin to A) kill it, B) stabilize it.
His hands are all slimy from the fish, so his hand came off the top
of the knife, and went right down the blade like this [demonstrates].
He cut these fingers to the tendons, and this one particularly was
cut right to the bone. So we called our DMTs.
This is not a good deal. We’re out in the middle of the boonies.
Helicopters can’t get out to us. So we made calls. First call
is to the OHF here, then we call our boss. We call the Coast Guard,
and they can’t get out here. We’re too far out. Jacksonville,
at that point, is 24 hours travel time or a little bit more away.
So Larry and the boys got him stabilized, got everything bandaged
up and taped up, but it’s not fixed. It’s just stabilized.
This frigate comes by, so we call the frigate and we say we got an
accident over here, described the accident, spoke to their captain.
Captain says, “Because we have a helicopter and we’re
a frigate, not a destroyer, we have an MD [medical doctor], not a
corpsman.” We say, “Could we bring this guy over to you
on one of our boats?” He said, “Yes, bring him alongside,
and we’ll get him up.” Our boat goes over there with him,
and we’re about 100 yards apart. The ship waits there, and they
hoist him up. They put him on a litter.
Our boat comes back, and we’re standing by. The ship captain
comes back on the radio. He says our doc [doctor] has looked at it,
and he’s got to go ashore. He’s got to go to Patrick [Air
Force Base, Florida]. They said we’ll fly him in there, so they
fire up their helicopter and they take off. An hour later he’s
in Patrick, and he had microsurgery on his tendons. They sewed them
all back together again. He had to go through a few months of this
rubber band thing, a tension resistance band. He got about 90% use
of that finger again. He couldn’t go all the way, but pretty
That was an interesting story. You’d never think that would
happen. Slimy hands just slip right off the handle. I think that was
one of the worst accidents. We had a couple bangs and scrapes over
the years but nothing too bad.
One time in the early years we got out there and it was flat calm,
so everybody asked if we could go swimming. As much time as I have
spent on the ocean, my whole life—I was born and lived 17 years
in Hawaii, then I moved to Bermuda and lived a long time in Bermuda—I
never liked to swim in the deep ocean so I didn’t go swimming.
Everybody’s swimming around the side of the ship, and I just
happened to go out on the bridge. I’m standing there watching
these guys swim, I look right down there, and I see this dark color.
It’s 3,000 feet of water, so it looks like you’re looking
into infinity. It’s like looking into space. You could see down
maybe 100 feet.
I see this dark blob, and it’s getting closer and closer. So
I yell, “Shark, get out of the water!” These three guys
are right there, and they start kicking. That shark came right up
under one of them. He just happened to kick—none of them saw
the shark, they just kicked to get back into the small boat—and
the shark turned like that [demonstrates]. Thought we had another
There were sharks out there all the time, but they were whitetip sharks.
They were there almost every mission, and they were more inquisitive
than hungry, which is probably good. Pretty soon we just got immune
to them. It’s unbelievable. They didn’t bother anybody.
There was a lot of thrashing and jumping in and out of boats. We never
threw any of our trash overboard or anything, we always kept it till
we got back.
We had a few jellyfish stings over the years, nobody got bit by anything.
Caught a lot of fish, but that shark thing, that was interesting.
That’s the first time I saw one actually looking like something
might be good eating. That looked just like the Jaws scene, spooky.
Those whitetip sharks, you can see them, they swim right under the
surface. They were about four, six feet long, actually very pretty.
They had white tips on the end of their dorsal fin and their side
fins. This was not a whitetip shark. I never did see exactly what
kind it was because he turned, but it was big, bigger than the swimmer
working all of those missions, it came time for the last one. Can
you give us your thoughts about what it was like to take the crew
Nobody wanted to see the last one, nobody. It’s amazing. I’ve
seen a couple of telecasts—they had one the other night, last
Sunday, on the Shuttle. I think everybody, including me, gets very
attached to the Shuttle because you spend so much of your life with
it. If it had been a two- or three-year thing you’d go on to
something else, but you spend that much time, you’re forming
bonds. You form bonds with people, because you’re with the same
people for years going in and out on storms, in and out on bad weather,
in and out on accidents. It’s like a family. And you spend time
with the equipment. The disassembly guys feel the same way about their
stuff downstairs as we do about the ship.
The guys in the launch pad, guys in the VAB, the guys in the external
tank world, parachute shop, all those people spent years with that
equipment. You just get attached to it. Their equipment has to work
or the whole thing doesn’t work. Our part has to work, or you
can’t get the boosters back. You can’t get the boosters
back, you can’t launch down the road. It’s all connected,
which was unique about this program. Every little teeny piece had
We used to kid the astronauts—sometimes the astronauts would
come over here, and we were always out of the way. We’re the
cleanup guys after the launch. We’re post-flight. Nobody paid
any attention to post-flight, unless post-flight didn’t work
for some reason. If post-flight didn’t work because we had bad
weather, had some delay, then post-flight became important—I’m
The astronauts would come over now and again and see us, so we would
say, “You know, that thing you’re riding in has 50,000
parts all put together by the lowest bidder.” They chuckle at
that, and we say, “We’re glad we’re not going in
it.” All those 50,000 parts had to work, or the thing didn’t
go. I think that was the thing that bonded us all together too. Bonded
us individually as the marine group, but it also bonded us to everybody
else out here, because the goal was the same.
Everybody’s goal was the same, and that made it unique. It’s
a huge amount of people with the same goal. I know big companies do
that, but I don’t think big companies communicate as well as
we all did. I never saw so many contractor people, 12,000 people out
here all working 100% towards the same thing and all contributing
some little thing to the main effort. That was incredible. It took
me 10 years to see that. It’s such a big program that you don’t
see that in the beginning, it’s too big.
When new guys would come in, they’re bowled over by the acronyms.
Then you get bowled over by all the rules that are out here. Finally,
if you can accept all that, then you get into the phase where you
start seeing maybe beyond your horizon, out of your playground. You
see into the other things. Pretty soon, after 15 or 20 years, you
start seeing the whole thing and appreciating—things like we
did with that overland barge delivery of that tank.
That was amazing because there were so many people involved to make
that work. I’m sure if it had been outside it could have been
done with 50 people, but we had probably 5,000 people doing it. That’s
the culture. The end result is putting somebody safely in space and
bringing them back again. Everything trickles down from that.
Every mission, particularly since Challenger and Columbia, everybody
had their fingers crossed, saying your prayers. Every mission after
that became special, because we knew then it doesn’t always
work. Two of them didn’t work, so you hold your breath. The
Shuttle would go right over our heads, we were right on the azimuth.
The boosters would come down about 10 miles away from us.
Once those boosters release about 60,000 feet, that Shuttle would
go right straight over the top of us. It was really pretty. Couldn’t
always see it, but a lot of times you could. Until that point, we’d
all be really sweating it. We got to get those boosters off of there
and get the parachutes. Get them off the Shuttle, and the Shuttle
is on its way. We’re good, looks like it’s going to work.
President [George W.] Bush mentioned earlier on in his Vision for
Space Exploration that the Shuttle program was going to end around
2010. At that point, “Oh, that’s way out there. It’ll
change.” Well it never did change, so finally the end of the
road came. It’s like having a disease. It was disbelief at first,
then rejection, then anger, and finally acceptance.
When we came in, we came in with the two ships. The mission was the
same, our job is exactly the same as it was 10 missions earlier. It
was a good day. It was the last mission, but once the SRBs hit the
water we go into automatic retrieval mode. We’re not thinking
about next week, we’re doing what we’re doing. That all
went well; everybody did great. We came in, pushed the boosters in
the slip, tied the ship up, came back the next day.
“Now what? Now what the heck is going to happen?” We all
knew not everybody’s staying. There’s no Shuttle program.
It’s like getting kicked out of your house almost, pitched out
of the family. It’s a strange feeling. Fortunately now I’ve
been here a little longer since the program ended, and I’m getting
over the shock of it all. That’s your way of life for 30 years.
And not just your way of life, I mean a dedicated way of life. I bet
a police officer would feel the same way or a fireman. Somebody dedicated
to what he does would feel, “What am I supposed to do? How can
you take this away from me?”
There’s still a lot of feelings about why did it stop, did it
have to stop, could it have gone longer, why didn’t we have
something in place to take its place? So here we are. We call ourselves,
the 20 people remaining, the cockroaches. We survive. We survived
the whole thing, and we’re still here. I’m amazed. We’re
the bottom of the food chain and we’re still here because COTS
[Commercial Orbital Transportation Services] wants to use us, SpaceX
[Space Exploration Technologies Corporation] wants to use our ships
for the Weibel [Scientific] radar telemetry. We’re hanging on
by a little thread.
I’m pretty close to retiring but my wife is still working. For
me, this is a hobby. This has always been my hobby. I feel like Ratty
in The Wind in the Willows, I’m messing about with boats for
30 years. It took me ‘til I was 40 years old to find something
I enjoy doing, just by asking that lady down at the port a long time
ago. There was a job up here and by a chance meeting, I got here and
finally found something. I did a whole bunch of different stuff before
I got here, and finally found something that I enjoyed doing and could
find a progression to work up to being a master mariner, which I am.
Having seen this thing from launch one to launch 135, the last one.
Seems like it’s been about two weeks, the whole thing, can’t
believe it. Both my boys were born when it started. Now they’ve
finished college and everything. It seems like a flash to me. And
I’d do it all over again, if you want to ask me. Yes, probably
all of us would. It was great.
we end, I was going to ask Jennifer if she had a question or two for
I had a couple. Can you tell us about the names of the ships? Who
came up with those names?
Yes. UTC of course was in reference to United Technologies Corporation.
The names were already there before I got here. Liberty and Freedom
are part of our national pride, national being, liberty and justice
for all. They wanted some national name that was recognizable, rather
than a personal name.
Then of course the third ship was Independence. That was built over
in Pascagoula, Mississippi. It was delivered here, and I was the first
captain of that ship. I was asked if I wanted to take the ship to
California. They were going to Vandenberg [Air Force Base, California].
I talked to my wife, and we decided it would first be more expensive
to live out there. She’d have to get relocated, find a new job.
Just had kid number one, so probably better to stay here. I’m
glad I did stay here, because the Vandenberg thing never happened.
That ship got chartered to the Navy, and they spent a lot of time
out in the Gulf of Alaska. It’s still going. The ship is still
When the Shuttle processing contract changed we became Thiokol. It
was Thiokol, then Morton Thiokol [Inc.]. They wanted the UTC off of
it at that point, and I guess Lockheed [Corporation] had a say in
it because instead of UTC Liberty, UTC Freedom, it became [MV] Liberty
Star and [MV] Freedom Star. The Star is for Lockheed’s logo,
which is a star. Then not too long ago NASA took over ownership of
the ships. The NASA logo is mounted on both sides of the smokestack,
but they left the names the same.
Those name boards that you see on the sides of those ships by the
bridge, those big wooden boards—they’re actually required
by the Coast Guard to be there. They’re called name boards,
and every ship has one. That’s a lovely piece of mahogany about
eight feet long. I was given one from the UTC Liberty, which I still
have on my patio, because they had to get new ones calling it Liberty
Star. People still ask me, what is UTC? I met some people thought
it was a university, like university of something. We’d go to
different places in our charters and people would say what is that
UTC thing? It became Liberty Star and Freedom Star. Still nice names,
but the UTC and the Star part were the corporate image on them. The
names I think were universally recognized.
They’re called motor vessels, not ships—MV. Independence
never had a Star after it, because it was actually owned by the Air
Force. The Air Force built it. It was just called Motor Vessel Independence.
Motor Vessel Independence did two or three launches here, and then
finally one of the members of the crew of the Freedom was certified
to be captain, so he got the ship and took it to California with a
They went out there to prepare for the Vandenberg launches, and then
when that didn’t happen they did charter, mostly for the Navy.
Sometimes NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] chartered
them, University of Hawaii [Honolulu] chartered them, Scripps Institution
[of Oceanography] in La Jolla [California] chartered them a few times.
So they had a long and illustrious career but in a different business.
Earlier you had mentioned that the order of retrieval was important
and significant. Can you walk us through that process?
The retrieval order is a definite process, and that’s because
sometimes if you do something out of order, you can’t get the
rest of it done. The first thing that you have to do is get the parachutes
off of the boosters. Let me illustrate that.
The parachutes on the boosters went through a couple of changes over
the years. Initially when they hit the water they blew free. The parachutes
all had floats that were packed and loaded on the forward skirt, actually
inside the frustum. That was to support them when they did blow free.
The booster would sit this way [demonstrates], so the parachutes would
be floated, then the riser groups and the canopies. It’d be
way down, 200, 300 feet down. We never dove that far down, but we
could get them with the floats and bring the ship to the floats. The
small boat would tie a line from the riser group to the ship, and
we’d pull it on.
Well, somewhere midway through the process of all the launches they
had what they called some damage to the forward skirts. You may have
heard of all this in the ‘90s. It was called slapdown damage.
It got to be critical because for some reason the slapdown damage
happened mostly to the left-hand booster, the left-hand forward skirt.
As the parachutes came down and hit the water, the parachutes would
blow free, but if there was a wind of about 30 miles an hour or more,
the SRBs are not only coming down but it’s going sideways too.
As the SRBs hit the water, the bottom, the skirt part with the nozzle,
hits the water first. It hits the surface and trips, and it goes bam
like this [demonstrates]. It happened so fast you couldn’t see
it, but in video we could see it. At the slapdown the SRB started
cracking and getting holes in the forward skirt, mostly the left side.
I don’t know why it was the left side. The program didn’t
have a whole lot of extra forward skirts. There was some instrumentation
in the forward skirts, and the program really didn’t want water
Once the SRBs got banged up with holes in them, we couldn’t
repair them. We had a lot of soul searching and head scratching with
the Marshall engineers, and we decided that one thing we could do
was leave the parachutes on like they used to be. Originally they
stayed attached, and we had to disconnect them. First number of launches
the riser groups were attached to the deck fittings, which were right
on top of the booster. The nose cone comes off and the frustum comes
off, and three riser groups were attached to the deck fittings. We
had to detach them. 40 feet down from the riser group there was what
was called a cargo link, and each riser group had a cargo link. It’s
just a mechanical click thing like this [demonstrates], clicked together.
The divers had to go down and hang on against the riser group, push
buttons or somehow disconnect, or else cut the riser line and disconnect
these cargo links. Trouble is at 40 feet below the surface—in
diving parlance 33 feet is one atmosphere. You go from one atmosphere
to the surface quickly, you have a really good chance of getting an
air embolism, because you’re going to the surface too fast.
You’re supposed to come up at a certain rate of ascent, and
if you exceed that rate you’re really putting yourself at risk.
Our divers figured that out pretty early. In a rough sea they’re
yanked up to the surface, sometimes back down, trying to get these
cargo links disconnected.
It took a number of missions, and finally we had an Air Force general,
who was a diver, come out and dove on one of the SRB retrievals with
us. He said you guys are absolutely right; we got to get these cargo
links out of here. Actually some guys had a shoulder dislocated, a
couple of other injuries, and we had to retire them from diving. They
stayed here and worked but they didn’t go out there anymore,
two or three of them. The general says, “Okay, come up with
a new way.”
That was how they originally came, the first launches, cargo links.
Then it went from there to where they got blown free. That lasted
a number of years until the slapdown damage started wrecking forward
skirts. This was four, five, six years in between, didn’t happen
in a week. Slapdown damage is on-going, and now the program is saying
we need the parachutes attached longer because if the parachutes are
attached longer, when the SRB hits the water the parachutes remain
inflated. There’s still resistance because the parachute is
supporting the SRB, so it slows this slapdown thing down.
Question is, how do we get the risers off? We can’t go back
to the cargo links, that’s too dangerous. We need the parachutes
to stay inflated to minimize the slap-down damage. So we looked corporately.
Everybody discovered that the military uses what they call Salt Water
Activated Release, SWAR devices. Every military pilot that flies over
water has Salt Water Activated Releases on their parachutes. When
they hit salt water, they pop open free. The pilot is now free of
his parachute, and it happens instantly. And it’s fail safe.
It can go off in your hand. It won’t even hurt you. They were
too small for these parachutes. We’re talking a huge scale,
We contact the company that makes them in Jacksonville, and NASA Marshall
took over at this point. “We need a parachute Salt Water Activated
Release that can support this much weight, this much inertia,”
all the figures. They engineered this whole thing, and they made them.
They drop tested them over the desert somewhere, and they worked okay.
They’re all man-rated, so they were safe for us to go out there
and climb all over the SRBs and retrieve them, because we retrieve
the SWARs with the parachutes. They put them on, and they worked fine.
The parachutes stayed attached, and the booster goes over like this
[demonstrates]. The SWARs are not way at the top, they’re down
nearer to the booster. As soon as this SRB hits the water, it slows
the momentum down. Booster comes up, parachute risers, SWARs get wet,
they release, parachutes float down on to the water.
We made two Kevlar lines to each parachute that were attached to the
booster. They didn’t pack the floats on the SRBs anymore because
each float was about this big and this thick [demonstrates], and you
had to have three of them for each parachute to hold all that weight.
Every pound of weight that booster carries up equates to like 20 pounds
of cargo, so they said, “We can put more cargo in if we take
the floats off.” If we take the floats off and the SWARs blow
the parachutes free, if you don’t put another line on there
they’re going to sink.
The parachutes were fairly expensive and reusable, so they said, “Okay,
we’ll attach two” what they call standoff lines. The standoff
lines were attached to the top of the rocket, to the deck. The booster
would go down, SWARs would release, parachute would hit the water,
and because each parachute had two Kevlar lines going to the risers,
the parachutes would float upside down. The canopy is down in the
water, riser here [demonstrates]. Kevlar lines are holding it up.
That worked fine, no more slapdown damage. Made it a lot easier for
our divers, didn’t have to go deal with the cargo links. We
took our own floats over to the SRB. In our conference room there’s
pictures of all this stuff. Our divers would take these big round
float balls and took two of them for each parachute. We’d take
all the float balls out there and attach them to the parachute. Before
we cut the Kevlar lines, we’d attach these floats.
The divers have to go down about 40 feet and attach them to the risers
that are being suspended by the Kevlar line. They get all these risers
tied in, then they cut the Kevlar lines. Then the parachutes float
slowly away from the booster to the point where we take our small
boat and put a line around one of the legs of the parachute. The ship
would go over to the small boat, the boat crew would transfer the
line to the ship, and we’d reel the parachute aboard onto the
reel. That’s how we did probably the last 15 years with the
Salt Water Activated Releases, and that worked really well. That took
care of all the parachute problems, but it took 20 something years
to get to that point. We had injuries in the first part with the cargo
links, then we had problems with the slapdown damage. Finally it evolved
to a system that was safe and practical.
Now the DOP—initially when the DOP got to the point, past the
BARB, to what it looked like out here [demonstrates], it didn’t
look exactly like it looks like now. The first DOPs filled up the
nozzle. You pump the water out of the booster and tow them back. However,
the phenolic and loose material, the cork material inside the booster
after burnout, is all floating around inside the SRB. It’s not
clean in that there’s still all this floating carbon stuff.
When you look at these DOPs, there is a great big plastic hose that
attaches to the DOP. That goes on the inside of the SRB. On the front
end of the plastic hose—we called it a catcher’s mask,
it looked like a catcher’s mask. It’s a cage with grills
about this big [demonstrates]. It fits into that hose, because the
hose is taking the water from inside the booster, and it’s pushing
it out the center of the DOP. There’s a flapper valve in the
DOP so the water can only go out, it can’t come back in.
Air is coming from the ship. The divers put the air hose onto the
DOP with a quick disconnect, and the air is now going into the booster.
Very simple process, and it worked really well. Air goes in, it pumps
water out, and gradually the booster falls over like this [demonstrates].
Incredible. Probably a six-year-old kid can do that with a straw and
a Coke bottle in a bathtub. Occasionally though this catcher’s
mask on the end of the hose, the dewatering hose, would get filled
up with all this cork.
We had about a three-foot-long line with a small float buoy, a float
ball, inside attached to the catcher’s mask. This dewatering
hose was probably six or seven feet long. It had to be long enough
because the water level in the booster changed. When you pumped water
out, the SRB got higher. You know how that float in the toilet works
when the cistern is filling up, it works just like that. As the water
level changed, the float ball would keep the dewatering hose where
the water was.
The catcher’s mask would fill up—that happened, I think,
three or four times over the course of maybe four, five years. Didn’t
happen all the time. The booster would come up, and it would get into
semilog mode. It would take about 30 minutes to do that. I would tell
the small boat to go around the SRB, out to the side, not behind it
but out to the side, and tell me if they are observing water flow
from the rocket. If the answer was yes then the dewatering hose is
not plugged up, because water is coming out as we’re pumping
Sometimes they would not see water coming out and we’d be pumping
air in. A couple times we’re pumping air in, no water is coming
out, and the DOP goes boom, right out the back. I saw the guys in
the small boat jump right over the side of the boat. There’s
a lot of air in there, a lot of volume, but not much pressure, so
when the DOP comes out it’s pretty much in the water anyway.
It went out about three feet, then it just floats.
The Thiokol people, who were in charge of the aft skirt and nozzle,
were concerned that the DOP might damage the nozzle. Turns out that
it didn’t damage the nozzle, but we can’t have that DOP
popping out all the time. The last name change was made to the DOP,
which became known as the EDOP, enhanced diver-operated plug. The
enhanced DOP had a really unique thing, couple of neat things. This
change on the DOP was like the SWARs to the parachute.
We decided corporately, all of us, that if we drilled a hole in the
mandrel of the DOP in the vicinity of where the air goes in, and we
put a burst disk across that hole, when the DOP reached a certain
pressure the burst disk would break before it got so much pressure
it’d blow the DOP out. Also in the burst disk we put dye like
aviators have when they hit the water. They have a dye pack, it’s
red or fluorescent green, and it spreads out in the water and you
can see it better. That would be the telltale that said the hose is
clogged up. You’ve reached a pressure, about 11 psi [pounds
per square inch], to blow this burst disk, which was basically a membrane.
Under normal operations it would be fine because the pressure on a
dewatered booster never went over 11 psi, so if it got over 11 psi
then the dewatering hose clogged up. We’re pumping air in but
we’re not pumping water out, so the burst disk would go. The
dye would hit the water, and you’d see what happened. Another
great thing was that we could put a new burst disk on out in the ocean
and close the hole back up and pump air in it and then get the SRB
higher in the water. Never had any more trouble with blowing DOPs
It was easy to fix. If the hole where the burst disk was happened
to be underwater, because of the way the DOP went in to the nozzle,
then we just tow the SRB back that way and put the burst disk on the
DOP where it wasn’t rough. If it wasn’t rough on the ocean
we could fix it there, so it was really easy. It was foolproof. It
did everything it was supposed to do. It never blew any more DOPs
out, worked great. Larry can give you a diver’s-eye view how
that all worked. So by the end of days, the parachutes worked, the
booster worked, the DOPs worked. We had it all going well. We could
have gone another 10 years.
that order of retrieval something that was posted in a checklist?
Yes, the order was in our retrieval manuals, in our RODs document.
In our governing paperwork, which I still have copies of, that procedure
was spelled out. In our particular case it said that the order could
be changed if it didn’t increase the safety hazard. I’ll
give you an example of why you couldn’t change things, because
it would interfere with the next process. The parachutes had to come
on first because they had to go on the reels. We couldn’t put
the frustum on first because it was blocking where the parachutes
came on, so the frustum always came on last.
We couldn’t dewater the booster first because we couldn’t
have it floating off. When it landed it was full of water, it wasn’t
going very far. If it got horizontal, it was like the barge. It was
very light in the water. It would just float off. Also when it’s
floating vertically it’s a really good radar target. You can
see it ten miles away with our radar, so we always knew where it was.
When we were doing this process we were about 100, 200 yards away
from it, it was all right together. Parachutes, frustum, booster all
landed in a grouping. They might be a half mile or mile from the other
booster, but all one booster’s components were right together.
The parachutes came on first, then the drogue parachute, and that
was the last parachute reel. The first three parachutes from the front
of the ship back—the first three reels were the main parachutes.
Sometimes the main parachutes would get tangled, and we’d have
to put two or even three parachutes on one reel. You couldn’t
get them separated out there. That happened fairly often too.
Of course when the parachutes blew free we didn’t have this
problem, but when they were tethered by the Kevlar lines, they’re
down 300 or 400 feet. The booster is spinning around—and if
there’s a night launch, you had to wait till morning. It’s
plunging up and down, and by the next morning they’re wrapped
all around the aft skirt. They’re wrapped inside each other.
Unbelievable mess. We’d send an inspection dive down, and we’d
video it. It was unbelievable. We had to cut risers sometimes just
to get it free; we had no choice. We try to reuse this stuff, but
we can’t get the booster in if we can’t get the parachutes
off of it.
A couple times when the booster was straight up and down, actually
a calm day, a day with no wind, this would happen: the rocket hits
the water and comes back up, and the parachute came down right over
the top of it just like a big jellyfish. So we just left that parachute
and got everything else done. Left the frustum in the water, dewatered
the rocket so it came up like this [demonstrates], and then our divers
climbed on the nozzle end.
Where the rocket goes down, the nozzle comes like this [demonstrates].
That’s the lowest point in the water. We could put the bow of
the small boat there and someone could hop up. They’d walk up
on the booster and just work the parachute off. Took about half an
hour, three guys working the parachute, to finally push it off the
front where we got it. That happened a couple times I remember.
You’d have to get the three parachutes, then you’d have
to get the drogue parachute on, then lift the frustum from the water
onto the dunnage. That side of the deck is now done. We’d secure
the frustum with strapping so it wouldn’t move, then we’d
have to go put the DOP in the water. Divers take it down, insert it,
dewater. All this is taking about an hour, and if it’s rough
it’s even longer. Get the booster up like this [demonstrates]
and then keep pumping it until it’s level, all the water is
out, then get the air hose off and bring it back on the ship. Then
hook the towline up, then get the small boat back on the ship and
the guys out. That was pretty much the sequence of what we do.
All that took from four to eight hours depending on how rough it was.
I think four hours was the fastest we ever did it, but that was when
the parachutes were blown free and you could just go pick them up.
When the parachutes were attached, the detaching process with the
float balls took longer. We had to do underwater video surveillance
to check everything first to make sure there was no damage to the
casings underwater, so that added an extra dive. That was an extra
45 minutes to an hour’s effort.
There was one other incident. To this day there’s no explanation
except one, and nobody can prove it. This is like the UFO [unidentified
flying object] of our Shuttle missions. In all 32 years nothing like
this ever happened before or since. One day, in the ‘80s, we
were out at 150 miles with two ships. We had the Ocean Test Fixture,
that practice booster that we made, and a practice frustum. We had
all our toys out there. We would go out in the actual op area to get
One day the frustum is sitting in the water. It’s upside down,
and it has a real, but old drogue parachute on it. It’s hanging
down maybe a couple hundred feet. Not a rough day. I happened to be
on watch on the bridge. I was still a ship’s officer at that
point, and I’m just at the aft station of the bridge. When you’re
out there, there’s a forward station and an aft station. At
the aft station, the windows are right here [demonstrates], you can
see the deck. You get used to driving the ship backwards, because
you can’t see anything from the forward station. We all got
used to working from the aft station.
The frustum is right astern of the ship 50 yards. We’re practicing
getting the drogue chute on, lifting it up. We put it back in the
water. The next crane operator gets to practice. The divers get to
hook it up. We used to do that constantly until they started launching
about every month or two about 1985, ’84. When the launch frequency
went up we started getting really good at what we were doing. The
launches were actually our practices because they were so frequent.
This was back when there was three or four months between launches.
We’re sitting here in the ship, boat’s here in the water.
We’re just sitting. The bottom of the frustum, the open part,
goes down like this [demonstrates], and the parachute is here. This
thing is sitting in the water and it goes skhhh, just disappeared.
It went away. We didn’t see anything, we didn’t hear anything.
Nobody saw anything, and we never heard anything about it afterwards.
15 or 20 people saw it happen. I’m looking at this frustum and
it just went shoo, gone, and that fast.
This practice frustum wasn’t like the real one. It was totally
full of Styrofoam, so to sink that thing you had to put a lot of effort
into it. We surmise, but we don’t know—at that point Kings
Bay in Georgia, where the submarine base is, wasn’t built. A
lot of the Trident missile submarines—the ballistic missile
submarines, as opposed to attack submarines—would come in out
of Port Canaveral. The Trident basin, the eastern of those three basins—that’s
still a submarine base. We don’t go in there much, but the submarines
used to come in and use the ranges off of here to calibrate some of
their stuff. A lot more submarine activity in the ’80s here
than lately, because now they’re all going up to Kings Bay,
Georgia, which was built specifically for that.
On the nautical charts you will see submarine transit lanes. They’re
like highways under the ocean, like airplanes have airways they fly.
Submarines, when they get out in the deep ocean, can go where they
want to go. When they’re approaching the coast, there’s
certain lanes that they travel in so they don’t run into each
other. We think that the parachute hanging down was down far enough,
and a submarine was coming by and it snagged it.
It would have had to have been the conning tower, because if the whole
submarine was 200 feet or less from the surface we’d have seen
something happening in the water. Those things are huge. We went behind
one in the port one day that was getting ready to get under way. The
ship went behind it, and when the sub engaged its propellers it actually
pushed our ship sideways. It’s just leaving the dock—hardly
moving—and it pushed us. So we think a submarine conning tower
grabbed that frustum, and it just took off with it. We never saw it
Usually this is a pretty tight community around the port, there’s
not many secrets. A guy catches a big fish or loses a fish or gets
drunk or whatever, pretty soon everybody knows. The guys in the crew
live here, they grew up here. You hear stuff, but we never heard a
single thing about that frustum. We knew guys in the Navy, we knew
guys in the NOTU [Naval Ordnance Test Unit]. We know guys on the test
range, we know merchant marine guys down there, we know fishermen.
Not one word ever about that frustum. For all I know it could have
been a Russian submarine, or it could have disappeared out in the
ocean. But for a little place like this was, never heard a thing.
Maybe the submarine was going somewhere else.
A big submarine may not even have noticed that. If that frustum didn’t
hit the submarine, if it didn’t bang off of it, I don’t
think they would have noticed the drag. They have so much power, it’d
have been like a flea. If it hit the sub, if it banged under the water,
then probably that would have caused some alarm. But if it didn’t
hit it right away they wouldn’t even have noticed it. That was
an interesting story, a true story. Nobody ever figured that out.
that’s a great one.
I just had one other question. You mentioned you had all your “playthings”
and you’d take them out and practice. When did you guys get
to a point where you decided that you had all the procedures down?
It was right about ’85. We’d go out a week or two of every
month when the launches were six months apart. We needed to because
we were getting new people, and all of our stuff kept evolving all
the time. When the launch rate started going up, there was a launch
almost every month or every other month. There was nine launches in
’85. We had been in the business like seven years at that time,
and we were pretty stable, the equipment was pretty stable. With the
launch rate at that level we were doing enough real-time.
I hate to use the term “practicing” on a real launch,
but they were so frequent that we were staying tuned up. We didn’t
have to wait three or four months to go out again. We needed to go
out was because the divers had to keep diving. We had to do so many
dives a year to keep everybody in qualification. You get a new diver,
and no matter what he did before, he had never done anything like
we were doing, so these guys had to come out and see this stuff. To
the last mission, if a guy was a new guy we wouldn’t put him
on any hands on. He’d just go down and watch for two or three
missions before he could actually touch something, push a DOP down.
Took four guys to help install a DOP. Go out there and hook up the
tow, hook up the air. The new guys never did that. They watched for
a few times.
It took longer to assimilate divers than it did crew members. You
could take a crew member off a Navy ship or off a yacht or off a sailboat.
Deck guys know how to anchor, they know how to throw lines, they know
how to paint. They know how to do all that stuff. Standing watch is
pretty routine everywhere, same requirements. But the diving was totally
new, so it took longer to get the divers up to speed than it did anybody
else. And once they got there they had to stay there.
Once we started going six or seven launches a year that was enough
that everybody was current. After Challenger there was nothing for
a year or two, so we went back to practicing again all the time. The
launch rate never did pick up like it did in the early ‘80s,
so we would go and practice. If there was a launch every three or
four months we’d go out a couple times a month. When you start
getting into the mid ’90s up to the end, you didn’t change
people very much. Everybody was here, everybody had been sifted through,
and everybody who was left in the mid ’90s pretty much stayed
to the end.
One nice thing, we had a huge amount of tribal knowledge. All these
guys on this floor, they’ve all been here 20 or more years.
That’s one of the sad things—we used to have 90 people
in this group and I think we’re down to 22. All that knowledge
is just gone out in the world somewhere. It’s all good knowledge,
too bad we couldn’t have gone longer with this program.
My personal opinion is the Shuttle could have flown longer. Everybody
said it was old technology but it worked. I talked to an astronaut
named Dominic [A.] Antonelli who went out with us one time, he actually
was pilot of one of the later missions. I asked him how he got started—interesting
story. He said that the Russian rocket is like one of our old locomotives.
It’s not pretty, but it’s very simple and it works well.
Even the Shuttle, as old as people now say it was, it still worked
well. It was a lot better-looking and probably more efficient.
They had problems over the years, but they fixed them all. They had
problems with the foam for Columbia, they fixed that. They had problems
with the seal for Challenger. In both of those cases those problems
existed before the actual event happened. It’s too bad it got
to that point, but we got complacent. I remember the launch. The mission
manager on Columbia—I was listening to the radio—he said
the smoking gun looks like foam but it’s not foam. But that’s
what the problem was.
I read the report they published a few years later, the Columbia Accident
Investigation [Board], CAIB, book. It was just like on Challenger.
A whole lot of people knew that was the problem. When those boosters
would come in here before Challenger after missions, those guys down
there on the hangar floor—who I know like brothers—could
see that burnthrough was already happening. The “gun”
was already smoking. Something was going on there with the seals.
There was one report before Challenger when they called up the head
of Thiokol. Said, “Come on, play ball, let’s go,”
so he caved in and said launch. One of the engineers there said, “If
you launch when it’s this cold, this rubber is going to be too
hard and it’s not going to seal.” Pretty simple. And that’s
exactly what happened. They knew about that, and they knew about the
foam. I don’t get that part at all.
do have one question, and it goes back to you using the term “being
on watch.” When you’d go out to your station and be waiting
for the Shuttle orbiter to fly over and the boosters to release, were
there specific people assigned for the watch? Or did everyone help?
No, specific people. The ship’s watch is always the ship’s
crew. Same thing for example like an aircraft carrier. There are 5,000
people in an aircraft carrier, but only the ship’s deck officers
are trained to be watch officers. On our ships we have a captain,
a chief mate, a second mate, a lead seaman, two ABs [able seamen]
and an ordinary seaman, and a cook and two engineers. The watch is
only a captain, a chief mate, a second mate, an AB or the ordinary.
To get our license we have to go through an enormous amount of material:
ship handling, ship stability, radar, celestial navigation, coastwise
navigation, piloting, ship characteristics, ship maneuvering. You
get tested in this every time you go back to upgrade your license.
The seamen go through similar tests but on a simpler scale.
All of us have to know how to use all the radios on the bridge, all
the communication equipment; all the radar—changing scale, plotting
contacts; and radio protocol, what all the frequencies are: VHF [very
high frequency], HF [high frequency], UHF [ultra high frequency].
How the machinery works—the engineers keep it running, but we
have to know throttle controls, rudder controls, pitch controls on
the propeller, the navigation, all the rules of the road. The COLREGS,
the International Regulations for Preventing Collision at Sea, is
basically your driver’s handbook. That is extremely complicated.
It covers everything that floats, and there’s a rule on both
situations, you and the other guy. That’s a 90% subject. You
have to get a 90% on those tests or you fail the navigation and the
safety and the rules of the road, so you’ve got to pay attention.
The 10 or 12 divers that go out there don’t stand watch; they’re
not qualified to stand watch. There are set watch people. We’re
going on a trip next week up to Nova Scotia [Canada], and I’m
on the 4:00 to 8:00 watch in the morning and the 4:00 to 8:00 watch
at night. David Winston, who’s the ordinary seaman, is on watch
with me. The captain is on another watch with the other seamen. We’re
so short of people now—that’s why we kept our licenses
current, to fill in—so he’s going to be standing another
watch. The watch is only Coast Guard-licensed or certified personnel,
usually the permanent crew.
you would see the boosters, when they would hit the water at splashdown—originally
you didn’t have the GPS systems that you had at the end, is
No. They had radar though, and the radar always picked them up. We
had LORAN [LOng RAnge Navigation] back in those days. The early versions
of GPS were very rudimentary in that they only gave you a position
about once every six or seven hours, which was pretty good. We used
LORAN and we used celestial navigation, which I enjoyed doing, because
it was an art and a science. Now I can take this GPS and go anywhere
in the world with it, and I’ll be within six feet of where I
think I am. I can have a course, I can have a speed, I can have a
distance, I can put a waypoint. It’ll tell me a lat [latitude]
and lon [longitude] of anywhere in the world, using two AA batteries.
a long way.
All the new cars have these things now, and a pretty dashboard display.
I have two sextants I bought when I used them in the Navy. I used
to enjoy the sextant. It was written—I think [Nathaniel] Bowditch
said celestial navigation is an art and a science. The art was being
able to use the sextant with two mirrors to get the reflection of
a star or a planet right on the horizon. At that particular instant
you mark the time, and you work out a sight reduction, spherical trigonometry.
You get one line, two lines, three lines, that’s where you are.
Now with GPS you just turn the thing on and, provided you read the
instruction manual, you can see where you are. Took all the fun out
of the whole thing.
I got pretty good at using a sextant. On that ship I was on before
I started here, we used a magnetic compass and a sextant for position.
I did a lot of ocean sailing too when we’d only have a sextant
and magnetic compass. That was an art, and you refined that art. The
more you refine it, the better position you got with it. I liked doing
there anything else that you can think of that you’d like to
No, I think that’s all the adventures. That was all the exciting
thank you so much. It’s wonderful information, we appreciate
You’re very welcome.