SRB Recovery Ships Oral
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida – 10 April 2012
is April 10th, 2012, and this oral history is being conducted with
Larry Collins 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.
Thanks again for taking time out of your afternoon to sit and visit
with us. Would you start by sharing a brief overview of your career
here and how you got started and what your roles have been?
was born in Florida, in Gainesville. Grew up there, went to school
there, went to college there. Not to bore you with any details about
all that, but I did major in accounting. While I was in school I was
teaching diving and got into a technical type of diving while I was
there. Several years after I graduated, an opportunity came up to
come down here and interview for a job because of contacts that I’d
made in the diving world. I liked diving a lot better than I did accounting.
I never intended to be here longer than a few years, and that was
31 years ago.
about your first jobs when you got here and some of the first missions
that you worked on.
I was hired as a lead diver. That was my primary job, but like everybody
else over here we did multiple jobs. My responsibility was to lead
teams of divers, particularly during the Shuttle missions. That was
what we did 90% of the time. Then when we came back from the Shuttle
missions I would work disassembly shifts to take apart the boosters
until they were done. After that was completed, then we would do preventive
maintenance on the dive gear, what we call the GSE, the government-supplied
equipment, the retrieval equipment that we use during the missions.
was the first Shuttle mission that you worked?
a lot of the procedures already in place when you first got here?
Or did you help develop some of the procedures and processes that
you used on the very last mission?
I helped develop a lot of procedures over the years. We had procedures
in place for recovering all of the equipment—the boosters, the
parachutes, the frustums, everything. Some of those, like particularly
the frustum, stayed. Except for buying new power blocks, that procedure
stayed the same practically from the time I got here, from STS-3 to
STS-135. The recovery of the parachutes changed dramatically over
the years. Originally the parachutes were all blown off and floated
free from the booster, and we would swim on them, attach a line to
them, and bring them on board.
After STS-4 and the failure of the parachutes—during that mission
the parachutes were attached, and we had to disconnect the parachutes
by hand. This is very difficult diving because you had to hang on
to the riser lines while you disconnected the links, what were called
cargo links. So you would be ten feet underwater and then five feet
out of the water, hanging on, and then crash back down into the water
while you’re trying to untape these things and pull these cargo
links apart and put floats on the parachutes.
The parachutes, they’re huge. They’re 100-foot diameter
chutes. There’s three on each booster, and they hang down in
the water 220 feet. Normally you can’t even see the bottoms
of the parachutes, even in that clear water. That stayed the same
until probably sometime around STS-25. I think they changed the chutes
during the time that they were reconfiguring after Challenger [STS
51-L accident] to where the chutes would—I think they went to
the salt water activated links then. Eventually that’s what
we wound up with.
we came, we were trying to pull some research together so that we
would have a better understanding of some of the operations here.
In one of the articles, we found a quote by you that said that SRB
retrieval is the second most hazardous job in the space program.
wasn’t me. I might have said it, but I wasn’t the first
one to say it. I don’t really know who said it first, but it
was someone in USA [United Space Alliance] or NASA.
you like to explain why? Do you agree with that statement that the
retrieval is a hazardous job?
definitely hazardous. It involves using life support equipment, scuba
gear, to depths of 130 feet. Working on a booster that weighs about
80 tons, which is surging in the water as much as 20 or 30 feet at
a time. And you’re in 3,000 feet of water, so if you have an
issue, there’s no bottom to work with. You have the possibility
of divers getting too deep, divers getting injured. And you have all
the normal diving problems, the bends [decompression sickness] and
embolisms and drowning.
One of the most [hazardous aspects is] not specifically diving itself
but getting ready to dive. You can’t dive off the ship directly
because you can’t crawl back up on the ship, so you [are required]
to dive out of small boats. Originally we used Zodiacs. Eventually
we had some bigger Ambar boats, but just transitioning from the ship
to the small boats was very hazardous. In fact, we didn’t use
the ability to dive [to determine if we could continue to operate].
Conditions-wise, you could dive sometimes in certain conditions, but
you would not be able to transition safely from the ships to the small
boats, and that was the key. If it was too rough to launch the small
boats, then it was too rough to do the operation.
believe it was the mid ’90s when you transitioned to a different
type of boat. You had boats that could be hoisted down, or that you
could hoist back up with a crane. You launched the boats differently,
is that correct?
the Ambar boats are a hard-bottomed boat, but they also have an inflatable
RIB [rigid inflatable boat] on them. We [have] a davit that you [can]
use to launch that boat with the equipment and with some people in
it. You can’t launch it with the whole crew in the boat, so
the biggest help was being able to launch these boats with the gear
Before, we would have to come back beside the ship, hand up these
heavy double tanks from the small boat into the ship, and all the
other gear, and then bring the boat aboard. At least now we could
leave all the gear in the boat. The tanks and the regulators and the
cameras and the toolboxes and everything else, just bring it onto
the boat. That helped a lot.
brought that change? Was it feedback from the crews to the management?
Or was there a safety issue? Was there a diver that was endangered
and therefore it brought that change about?
was not a specific instance that caused that to happen. There was
a general knowledge that it was always a problem transferring the
gear and the equipment from the ship to the small boat. At the time
that we started this operation, these Ambar boats were not available,
to the best of my knowledge. We went from Zodiacs, which had no hard
bottom at all, when I came here, to these Avon boats, British boats
that had a fiberglass bottom but a bigger sponson, the inflatable
part. You could launch these boats, but not really with the gear in
them. There just wasn’t the room, no places to put it.
The Ambars gave us the ability to put tanks and regulators and boxes
and oxygen resuscitators and everything in the boat, and lash it all
down. We could even launch people in these boats; you just couldn’t
launch everybody in them usually.
said you were here for STS-4.
lost the boosters, yes.
you share with us the end of that mission? What did you bring back
brought the frustums back. It was my second mission, in [June 1982].
The ocean was like glass. Every launch we would seem to lose some
parachutes. The boosters would hit the water, the parachutes had some
type of pyrotechnic on top, and the feet would blow off when they’d
hit the water, just before it hit the water, or at splashdown. All
of the floats were up in the apex of the parachutes, and for some
reason we kept losing one or two chutes on these launches. So they
decided instead of blowing all the legs off, to blow every other leg
off. That would leave one leg of the parachutes attached to the booster.
But what happened was the booster sensed splashdown thousands of feet
up, so the chutes are maybe not even totally dereefed. Every other
leg blows off, and then the chutes streamer. They hit, they broke
apart, and they sank. The frustums were there. We got there, and there’s
no boosters. There was just nothing. We were there several hours.
I remember I jumped in the water, I think I was probably the only
one to dive. I jumped off the back of the Freedom [Star] with a scooter
and went down to about 70 feet. There was this big black cloud, but
there was nothing. We determined pretty quickly that they sank. Then
I spent a great part of my summer out at sea that year, because we
went out there with ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] and hunted for
them till we found them and took a lot of pictures.
the pictures given to people for assessment?
than Challenger, was there another time that you came back with a
lighter load than you expected when you went out for retrieval?
didn’t lose any other boosters totally. STS-63 was memorable
in that there was really bad weather, 40-knot winds, seas that were
15 to 20 feet. It was a nasty night when they launched. Apparently
the boosters came down and slapped down on the water, hit on top of
a wave, and basically it tore big gashes in the forward skirts, busted
the nozzles. The nozzles were hanging on by the actuators, the only
thing holding them on. It bananaed the boosters, ruined all the segments.
At least one of the forward skirts fell off on the way back in. We
were out there for days and days and days. We couldn’t get a
diver-operated plug [DOP] in.
If you were doing this year after year, you would notice something
that would happen to you. The weather might look really really bad
to you and all the divers. Way before the weather got really good
enough, it looked good enough to go ahead, because you were just tired
of staying there. After the first Shuttle launch when they tried to
use the nozzle plugs and they didn’t work, they developed this
thing called a BARB, ballast aeration retrieval boom. It’s just
a pole with crossbar on it. Stick it up in the booster with the crossbar
and hold it down with a line. You run air to it, and you can partially
dewater a booster, what we call semilog mode. As long as you keep
air going to it, you can pull it all the way back in. This is what
we did on STS-63, because with the nozzles just hanging out by the
actuators we couldn’t put a DOP in there.
I remember putting a BARB in there, and at some point when we were
towing it back, I think maybe this is when the forward skirt fell
off. Of course we lost the tow then. Since we were having to drag
a hose, the hose rips the BARB out, tears it apart. So we have to
go put another BARB in it. Here it is again, it’s up and down
like this [demonstrates]. I swam up into the booster to get the old
pieces out. I’m getting all these old pieces together. The booster
is going up and down. I remember Wulf Eckroth. He’s still here;
he’s an engineer over in the ARF [Assembly and Refurbishment
Facility]. He’s swimming up, and there’s nothing to hold
on to there. He’s totally out of control, and we just collide.
Pieces are going everywhere. That’s just the way that mission
was. One of the engineers from California that was one of my divers—we
got back in and he said, “They should give us a tickertape parade.”
you have a lot of night launches? You mentioned STS-63. I know it
was a [Shuttle]-Mir mission.
had a lot of night launches. They launched whenever they needed to,
and in the early days they didn’t launch anything at night.
Shuttle launches had long windows, three and four hours. When it got
to be [International] Space Station, everything was five minutes or
less. So you had to go with whatever window you had.
the night launches did you attempt to retrieve them at night? Or did
you just stand by?
would retrieve [some of the gear, especially the frustum, if possible].
We didn’t like to dive at night, but we have had to dive at
night a few times in bad situations, like when we would get a parachute
of some sort hung up in the screws. Or one night we had a DOP that
didn’t go in. Then it was damaged, and we were trying to get
it out of the water. One night we lost a tow cable, the whole tow
cable, and we had to dive on that. We had a practice booster called
the Ocean Test Fixture. It was the same size as the booster, approximately
the same weight, had an aft skirt on it, everything. We actually did
go out 90 miles one time and put a DOP in it at night, take parachutes
off of it at night. Did the whole thing at night just to show we could
do it during missions.
We never did start a mission at night. Sometimes we would run into
nighttime and we’d be in a situation where you couldn’t
easily quit, or we would have extraneous circumstances. Diving at
night is problematic in the middle of the ocean because if you lose
a diver, it makes it many many more times harder to find them. We
tended to be very very conservative in everything we did.
about how that impacted your safety procedures, and what type of rules
you followed. How you set your teams up to make sure that the risk
first off, we followed all of [U.S.] Coast Guard regulations and we
followed all of the Association of Dive Contractors rules. Then of
course we made additional rules for ourselves. A standard rule in
commercial diving and military diving is that you have a standby diver.
You won’t see this in sport diving, and in some commercial settings
you won’t see it. Certainly you don’t see it in most scientific
divers, but we always had a standby diver kitted out and ready to
go in the water. We always dove in buddy pairs at least. Those are
general rules that everybody uses. One of the unique rules that we
set up was the use of a safety diver in the water.
Since we were diving in extremely deep water, 3,000 plus feet, the
safety diver had one job and one job only. We never gave the safety
diver any work to do. His job was to make sure no one went past him.
So he would go down and be slightly deeper than everyone else and
make sure that nobody went deeper. He was just there in case somebody
had a problem, ran out of air. In the early days, people ran out of
air a lot because the NASA doctor in charge decided that the bends
was a terrible thing and that if the divers only used singles we wouldn’t
stay down long enough to get bends. But of course drowning is forever,
so single 80 cubic feet of air for a working diver at 100 to 130 feet
just wasn’t always enough. Many times we wound up buddy-breathing
someone to the surface.
So we changed that, and I had a big hand in that because I had been
schooled in the technical diving world. One of the first things I
did was get everyone into doubles, with dual-valve manifolds and two
complete regulators, so that you had redundancy everywhere. After
that we had very few people run out of air. In fact nowadays we’re
using double 100s, big tanks, lots of air. Nobody runs out of air
a good thing. Were there other types of gear configuration that you
put in place or changes in suits?
us how those work.
The whole dive industry, the sport diving industry, started going
to computers, oh, 25, 30 years ago is when it started. The military
and commercial dive organizations like the [U.S.] Navy, who in the
beginning was the leader in everything, has now become the lagging
edge. It’s now a situation where people in the tech [technical]
diving world are generally the leaders—in some respects, not
every respect. The Navy still leads in certain things like rebreather
type operations and things like that.
We started using computers and nitrox at about the same time. Nitrox
is just oxygen-enriched air, so it lessens your chances of getting
the bends because you lessen the amount of nitrogen. Nitrogen is the
primary gas that’s responsible for the bends, so using oxygen-enriched
air is a definite benefit. With the computer, we could set the computer
on air. In other words, we would dive the mix like we’re diving
air, just give our divers the normal amount of time, because nitrox
will give you more time and depth. So we would be, by doing this,
taking what’s called a physiologic advantage. We would lessen
the chances of our divers getting the bends.
In addition to that, on any dive deeper than 100 feet, we require
them to stop and do a safety stop for three minutes at ten feet. We’ve
been doing that for a long time, and with the computers that we have
nowadays, they also do that. So when they get back to ten feet—or
actually it starts at 20 feet on these computers—it’ll
just start counting down. If you have something telling you to do
something, you’re more likely to do it. It’s worked very
very well. We’ve never had many cases of diver illnesses. I’m
sure this helped.
the lead diver, did you assign the teams who would be working with
who out on the missions?
slowly became my job. Then when I became the manager, it certainly
became my job, yes.
there a rationale that you used? Did you mix seniority, or did you
use personalities? What was the criteria for putting your teams together?
a little bit of everything. In the early days we had few missions
and many training missions. We used to go on a training mission once
a month offshore, pulling that dreaded OTF [ocean test fixture] out.
Didn’t matter what the weather was, at least once a month you
went to sea. If you had a mission you didn’t have to do a training
mission that month, but if you weren’t doing a mission, you
were going on a training mission. In the first year I was here, which
was 1982, we had STS-3 and STS-4 and that was it for that year. Then
I don’t remember exactly when we started back up, but we had
a few missions, and then we got busier to where we weren’t doing
many training missions anymore. Certainly in the later years we didn’t
even have the OTF anymore. The decision was made—and I don’t
know why—to get rid of it. I guess somebody decided we didn’t
need it. We were doing enough missions.
At this point you don’t have those types of training opportunities,
and the only opportunity you have to train anyone is on the real thing.
So on any given job, you have to put experienced people, at least
enough of them to get the job done safely, but you also have to work
the new guys in so that they can learn. In the very beginning I would
put people out there in the water and I’d say, “Just watch
this time.” Then, “Just do this simple job.” And
they would get it. They’re smart guys; they’d pick it
up pretty quick.
were here the morning of the Challenger accident. Talk about that
morning and then the work that the ships helped with the salvage operations.
it was a horrible night. Huge seas, biggest seas I’ve ever been
in. 25 feet plus, huge. The seas were so big that we could not make
headway into them. It tore up the dunnage on the back deck, the boat
cradles, everything. The toolbox on the ship I was on came loose and
ran around in the shop tearing everything up. It was an awful night.
The next morning—we had actually started heading back in. I
think we didn’t make it any more than 60 miles out and we needed
to be like 140. I don’t remember exactly where we were when
they launched, but back in those days we didn’t have any satellite
TV or anything so we just heard everything over the single-sideband
radio. We didn’t know till we were told that there had been
a catastrophe. It had gone in the water. We were directed to head
back into that area. It was the strangest ocean. It was bitterly cold,
I mean freezing cold. We put people for periods of time out on the
wings in these bunny suits because it was so cold. You could only
stay out there for a limited time.
All around us there were hundreds of water spouts forming and dissipating
in the water. I’ve never seen anything like it on the ocean.
I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again. Then
all of a sudden, like a cloud bank, we just came out of it. It was
just like you saw it that morning, crystal clear. So we stayed out,
and we actually found some floating debris that day that we picked
up. The [U.S.] Air Force was running around with helicopters dropping
smoke on this and that. We didn’t pick up anything useful.
After that there was a period of time where things were in somewhat
disarray. Decisions being made and getting assets together, what have
you. We had three ships at that time, the Indie [Independence], the
Liberty [Star] and the Freedom. All three ships were sent out. Eventually
what happened is the Indie had an ROV on board. On the Freedom we
had just a big group of divers, and we were working grids. The Liberty
was pulling side-scan sonar. Of course there were a lot of other boats
out there doing similar stuff. As we would find targets we would dive
on them, or as we would find things in these grids. These grids we
were laying out were like 600 by 600 feet. We laid out, I don’t
know, over 200,000 feet of line over nine or ten months.
a good time.
it wasn’t, because you’re bringing up debris. Fortunately
for us, we didn’t work on the crew cabin at all. Whoever was
in charge decided that the Navy boat out there would do that. They
parked on top of it and they did it all, so we were left looking for
satellites and other stuff, which was better.
are some of the other missions that you’ve gone on with the
ships that were a little bit unique? Did you go out on the treasure
wasn’t on it. I guess at a period of time between launches,
there was a group—I believe it was the ship the America, maybe—that
had a considerable amount of treasure on board. A group had put together
a plan and had an area staked out. You can get some type of a permit
or claim, and they were working that when another group came along
and decided well just in case they would hunt in the area near there.
So the Liberty went out with them, and they pulled a towed array around
but the first group found it. I think it was up off of North Carolina
or someplace like that.
bit odd in the history of the ships. You did some work with NOAA [National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration].
did quite a bit of work with NOAA. Not all of it diving, but diving-wise
we did one expedition to a place called the Flower Gardens, which
being from Texas you should know about because it’s not far
off of Houston.
to Galveston [Island].
yes. It’s an absolutely fabulous place. We were out there for
maybe a week to ten days doing scientific work for NOAA, diving every
day. It’s beautiful. The tops of these salt domes come up to
about 100 feet of water and come out of about 400, 500 feet of water.
They’re very very similar-looking to the [Florida] Keys. Some
fish that we have in the Keys like yellowtail snapper don’t
exist there at all, but a lot of the other stuff does. The most magnificent
plate coral I’ve ever seen, and crystal clear water, just crystal
clear, with oil wells around. Really interesting, something you don’t
see in Florida.
Then we’ve done quite a bit of work with NOAA at Aquarius, the
undersea laboratory that’s off of Key Largo [Florida]. One of
the most interesting things I’ve ever done here was I had the
opportunity to saturate at Aquarius for five days prior to one of
the other missions, and that was very different.
does that mean?
other words, I was able to go live in the habitat for five days underwater,
and we were setting everything up for a 14-day mission. We were running
cables and com [communication] lines and putting down little outposts
and things for a week. That was very different. Since then we’ve
supported quite a few scientific missions down there, one NEEMO [NASA
Extreme Environment Mission Operations] mission. Hopefully we’ll
do another one this June.
is the value of working with those types of operations, for your group
as well as the contracting group?
they certainly learn things from us, and we always learn things from
them. We have no opportunities to saturate, because that’s the
only undersea habitat in the world. It gives us an opportunity to
work with them, and we get an opportunity to train our divers by going
down to Aquarius. You can do a lot of diving, and it’s working
dives. Any time you’re working your divers in the water, it’s
good training. You still have to load the boats out, you’re
still using the underwater communications, you’re still lifting
things and moving things. It’s similar to the same type of retrieval
work that we do. It’s different, but it’s good training
opportunities. And it’s in the Keys. There’s a lot of
neat stuff swimming around.
with us how the communication techniques underwater have changed since
you’ve been working with this group.
when I first started working here, underwater communications were
hand signals. That’s how we communicated. And we still do a
lot of that because sometimes that’s just the easiest way to
Underwater communications are very very good when you’re working
with a hard-line diver. In other words he’s connected with a
hose to the surface, what’s called surface-supplied diving.
In the commercial diving world, that’s really the preferred
method of diving because you essentially have unlimited air. In the
diving world, they don’t worry so much about the bends. They
worry a lot about gas supply, so with an unlimited gas supply that’s
really the safest way to go about it.
In our operation, surface-supplied diving was just not practical because
you can’t put a large compressor into the small boats, and you
can’t back the ship up close enough to the boosters in a surging
sea working next to flight hardware to tend the divers. Plus you’ve
got these parachutes hanging down, and it would be just a real mess.
So very early on, before I even arrived, it was decided that scuba
was the way to go.
Communications using scuba have traditionally been a problem, because
through-water wireless communications just were not very good. The
first ones that we bought—the first several different types
that we bought—were really hit-or-miss. They simply were too
weak, they weren’t that good, they would break. You’re
operating in an environment that’s not conducive to through-water
communications, because all through-water communications use the surface
and the bottom to bounce the waves off of. Well, when your bottom
is 3,000 feet down and your surface is likely to be choppy and not
regular, communications would suffer. Plus the ship where the communications
are coming from, you have these screws churning around and creating
all types of bubbles.
It just didn’t work out very well, till finally someone built
some com units designed for the SPECWAR guys [Naval Special Warfare
Command], very very powerful units, and fairly expensive. We finally
procured these, and since then we’ve had very good communications.
I have actually talked to a diver half a mile away underwater on wireless
coms. That’s in perfect conditions when you’re in 80 feet
of water, but they work pretty well. We’ve been using them for
a long time. We don’t have all the divers on them all the time,
but at least the safety diver will be on coms. That was our rule,
at least the safety diver would be on coms.
mentioned earlier the [hyperbaric] chambers that are on the boats.
Each boat has one.
We didn’t have any chambers initially either. The NASA doctors
didn’t think that we’d be able to operate them, and they
didn’t want us practicing medicine even though we’re 140
miles away. I don’t remember exactly when we got our first chamber,
but we paid a dollar for it I think. It was a Navy chamber that we
got from Seattle [Washington], one they were basically T&Ring
[termination and redundancy]. It was an old aluminum chamber, and
we brought it here and reworked it. We used it for a long time, and
we only had that one chamber.
We would go to sea with that one chamber, and then we had it rigged
so that we could move the chamber from ship to ship. That was fairly
early in the program. I was only here like a year or two when we got
that first one, and we eventually got another chamber for the other
ship. Then both of those early chambers have now been replaced. Basically
we bought bare chambers, and we built them up ourselves. Wired them
and tubed them up and built the panels and everything ourselves so
they would both be the same.
We try to keep the ships pretty much the same because the divers and
the ship’s crew would move back and forth, so it made it easier.
It’s impossible to keep them exactly the same, but as much as
possible we would keep the ships the same so that if you moved from
ship to ship you could operate one to the other without a problem.
But just having a chamber is not enough. If you have a chamber you
have to have someone that can operate the chamber. Even as important
as that, you have to have inside tenders. So myself included with
some others, we went out and initially did four weeks of training
with NOAA in Seattle to become diver medics. I think I’m the
only one left of that original group, so we’ve trained diver
medics since then.
Every diver that I hire into the dive locker for the last ten years
has to either be or become an EMT [emergency medical technician],
a diver medic, and a dive instructor. Because at the end of the day
really one of the biggest jobs, the most important jobs we have is
training divers. We had divers coming and going and coming and going,
and things were always changing, so that was a big part of my job
and the leads’ jobs, to train guys.
can see that. Do you remember about when it was that you went to that
think it was ’86 or ’87. It was right after Challenger.
do you have any questions that you can think of?
I was trying to think of something personal. I’m wondering,
do you have any amusing or funny stories about any retrievals that
you can share with us?
memorable. You talked about the bad weather conditions, but were there
other times? Or are there any traditions that you guys do when you’re
coming back in or going out for a mission?
most of the guys are pretty sullen when they’re going out and
it’s bad. Morale is low. When you head out through the port
and the palm trees are turned inside out, morale plummets, but the
morale improves when they’re heading back on the way in. I guess
there’s been lots of funny things. Occasionally we would do
crazy things like we’d be on a training mission and we’d
take a whole carton of eggs, and then we’d fly by the other
ship’s small boat and just plaster them with eggs, just for
the heck of it. Things like that.
A little rivalry between the two of you.
sometimes you just turn into kids.
there a downside part of your job? So much of what you do is enjoyable,
because you enjoy the diving part, but is there—
think I have the best job in the world for 30 years. It’s not
as good now as it was. It’s not as good for anybody. I’ve
spent the last several months being a point of contact for getting
all of our people and stuff out of Hangar S, so all I do is go to
meetings about what percentage are you done here, what percentage
today and tomorrow. Victory will not be declared until you’re
totally moved out of there, and when we’re done with that, we’ll
start moving you out of some other place. That’s not the same.
Everything for all those years was really just—for most of the
people it was a launch. For us, for me, it was getting everybody out
there. And I had one aim, get everybody back home. That was it. There’s
always the mission. You have to get everything done that you’re
supposed to get done, retrieving everything, but then getting everybody
back. So really at the end of the program I guess that was in some
ways a relief. We are still diving, so you still have to worry a little
bit, but we’re not doing what we were doing then. There’s
no bigger rush than doing those types of dives, in really big seas
on really big stuff like that. So if there’s a downside I guess
it’s just that that part of it is over.
Before the end of Shuttle we had Ares I-X [rocket]. That was a very
very interesting endeavor, because we didn’t know how deep the
aft skirt was going to be. We’re constrained by Coast Guard
rules and our rules and the rules of the commercial diving association
to not go deeper than 130 feet with scuba. The reason the Navy initially
set that was because of gas supply. They don’t have those same
rules for a hard-line diver [or] for a surface-supplied diver. You
could dive to 190 feet on air. I knew that we were going to possibly
have to go over 130 feet, and I knew that surface supply wasn’t
going to work.
So I called the people out at ADC [Association of Diving Contractors],
and I talked to them. I had talked to them before. This was several
years before Ares actually launched. The president of the ADC said,
“Well, have you thought about using rebreathers?” I said,
“No, but always wanted to.” So we initially purchased
two rebreathers, and it’s like learning to dive all over again.
It is a type of scuba. Open-circuit scuba is what you normally see
where you just take a breath, and you blow bubbles in the water. You
do that until all your gas is gone and that’s it, that’s
simply it. With a rebreather, you have these two little tanks on each
side. You have a scrubber; you have all these electronics. It’s
very very busy using a rebreather. You have a heads-up display, and
you have a controller and another computer. You’re taking gas
in on one side, in one hose. It looks like an old double-hose regulator.
And you have a counterlung, and when you exhale, everything you exhale
goes back through the scrubber and back through the loop again. As
you use up the oxygen in the loop, there’s three O2 [oxygen]
sensors, and it automatically senses that you’re getting low
on oxygen. You tell it how much you want, so it just automatically
injects. This is a CCR [closed circuit rebreather]. There are others
that work differently.
So this was a whole different type of diving. We eventually trained
four divers and developed a new thing we called a stinger that we
could put into the booster. Basically our plan was to let the four
guys with rebreathers go down and put the stinger under the booster.
This would be essentially doing almost the same thing we used to do
with the BARB. Just put enough air in the booster to raise it up past
130 feet, then we’d send down the open-circuit guys with a DOP
and put it in. So we were ready.
We trained on the rebreathers for years and had 50 to 100 hours on
them. The launch came, and we jumped in the water with rebreathers.
I don’t think it was over 130 feet deep, but we were ready.
We did it all. If we had ever actually gotten to the true Ares, I
don’t know how deep it would have been, because the I-X had
one empty segment in place of another one. So it might have wound
up being deeper than 130. But that afforded the opportunity to do
something new and different.
ready for the future, wherever it takes you.
ready for it, yes.
there anything else you can think of that you would like to share
with us about what you’ve been involved in all these years?
don’t think so. I’m sure I’ll think of something
April 11, 2012]
glad you had a chance to think about some other areas that you’d
like for us to know about. Where would you like to start?
was actually only one thing that I missed out on yesterday. I’m
probably most famous in most of the divers’ minds—or maybe
infamous—for the fitness program. We were quite unique in our
fitness protocols. No organization that I know of, with the possible
exceptions of military diving units, had anything close to what we
did. Of course the first thing that we had everybody required to accomplish
is a dive physical, which was basically a flight physical that they
had to pass. In the commercial diving world they require you to pass
a physical, and then they recommend one every year. Well, we made
it mandatory that you had to pass a physical every year. NASA and
the OHF [Occupational Health Facility] supported this until we were
probably five or ten years in the program. All of a sudden the Occupational
Health decided that guys under 50 didn’t need one every year.
I didn’t like that, and so we took it to USA. At the time actually
I think we were working for Thiokol [Inc.]. They supported us in doing
it once a year, so in the off years we would send our divers outside.
They would either go to Parrish in Titusville [Florida] or someplace
in Orlando [Florida] and get a physical. Finally the OHF relented
and started doing them every year, so we had the physicals every year.
That was a good thing. It was really a benefit to the divers to get
a physical once a year, and it made us feel better because not only
were we diving and putting the guys into an extreme environment, but
we were so far away, 20 to 24 hours off shore, that you really needed
to know what was going on with people.
The other thing that we did was a physical fitness program, [the]
other requirement. We didn’t have any physical fitness program
when I started. I wish I could say that it was all my idea, but it
wasn’t. Actually the manager that we had here at the time one
day said, “I think your divers are soft, and we need to get
them in some kind of a program.”
We developed it over a number of years. We kicked around many different
scenarios and requirements, and we finally settled on a protocol that
was essentially the entrance physical exam for a U.S. Navy diver.
This is what an 18-year-old U.S. Navy diver has to do in order to
get into the Navy dive program. The Navy does something different,
they age-rate theirs. In other words, as you get older you can do
less. Well, we didn’t age-rate ours. There were considerable
attempts over the years by many of my divers to get us to age-rate
it, because as people get older it gets harder. But to me it was you’re
out there doing the same job you were doing 15 years ago. If all of
a sudden you can’t do it now, I guess maybe you shouldn’t
be doing it. So it stayed the same.
We had quite a bit of pushback in the beginning with the program.
Initially I was testing the divers once a year. Every year we’d
take everybody. It was a timed run. It was push-ups and pull-ups and
sit-ups. And it was horrible. Every year half the group would fall
out, so I decided to do it every six months. Then that didn’t
work. So finally I said, “I’m going to do it every 90
days.” And that worked better. Still, there were people who
were already divers, and they just never did get it, and eventually
they fell out of the program. It took a number of years, but what
we eventually achieved was a group of divers who love to work out
and love to stay in shape. It made for a safer, healthier dive team,
and we’re still doing it. It was really an integral part of
what we do and what makes us different.
this just for those whose diving was primary? Or those that crossed
who dives. If you’re going to be on the active dive list, you
have to pass this fitness test every 90 days. We still have some guys
that are current and uncurrent, current and uncurrent. There’s
still a few that are having issues. They’ll go for three or
four months, you don’t ever see them in the gym. Then they fail
the test and then you see them over there every day. They still don’t
like to work out that much, but they want to dive enough to get it
done. So that’s funny, but it works.
the most, how many active divers did you have at your peak?
30 and 35.
now how many?
a lot of the people who are still here are part of your active dive
team, give or take?
they’re all active right now. Most of the divers are what you
would call part-time divers. Most of them always were. I never had
more than, say, four full-time divers that that was their primary
job. And even those guys were all seconded off to other areas. They
all worked disassembly. They all would go down and work on the ships
if need be. There never was enough diving in this job to be able to
hire someone just as divers and just have that the only thing they
All of the people that were involved in retrieval did various jobs.
You had to be able to move from one area to another. I had engineers
that would be heading up jobs here that would wind up on the deck
of the ship taking orders from the lowest tech or the lowliest seaman
that we have. That’s the way it’s been since I’ve
been here. If you didn’t fit in with that type of environment,
it wasn’t going to work for you. You had to be able to give
orders and take orders.
spent many years with John [C.] Fischbeck. We had an opportunity to
talk with him for a few minutes, and he told us about a time he was
on watch. He noticed in the depths of the water while some of your
crew members were out swimming that he saw sharks. Can you share with
us some of the dangers of sharks in what you do for a living?
sharks get a bad rep [reputation] actually. They’re actually
a beautiful creature in the water. That being said, you don’t
want them there when you don’t want them. The other sad thing
I guess about sharks is when I started this job back in ’83,
invariably, almost every mission we went on, if the boosters impacted
one day and you’re still working on them the next, or maybe
even that same day, you will always see one or two sharks. These were
the big fat oceanic whitetip sharks. You don’t see them anymore.
They’ve all been killed off. You hardly ever see one.
I haven’t had an encounter with a shark at sea on any of the
missions in many many years, but in the early years we saw them all
the time. I don’t know which particular time that you’re
referring to with John, but the one that comes most to mind was on
a training mission where the ship had backed into the Ocean Test Fixture
and put a big hole in it. It was sinking, so we had a number of divers
who were in the water. We basically had a bucket of marine epoxy that
we’d mixed up and wooden wedges. We’re hammering these
wedges into this big crack and stuffing that marine epoxy in there
and putting a big patch around the OTF, which we had made up using
some metal, some wire, and some chain binders.
It was nearly dark and into the dark, and these sharks started coming
in on us. I don’t remember who was actually pounding the wedges
into the crack. I had my back to at least one or two guys, and I was
punching sharks in the nose as they would come in on us. Nobody got
bit; nobody got injured. Probably the sharks were more curious than
also spent some time sharing with us about the order of retrieval
and the parachutes at the beginning, and how challenging they could
be when they got all twisted up, and then how you changed I think
from the cargo links to the SWARs [salt water activated disconnects].
He said how it could be treacherous for them. Did you have actual
events that caused injuries to divers working with those parachutes
lines, or some potential issues that you felt?
had some what you would call soft tissue injuries that happened to
some divers. Nothing serious, but where some guys actually got hung
up in some of the parachute lines and then pulled up out of the water.
You’re in the water, you have on heavy tanks and equipment,
and then you get jerked up. That was actually rare. I can only remember
one [injury] in particular. You would routinely get jerked completely
out of the water.
Once the SWARs were employed, we didn’t have to disconnect the
parachutes by hand. All we had to do was attach these floats to the
parachutes, and then we would swim around and cut the lines with seatbelt
cutters. A diver in the water with a knife is more dangerous than
a shark. A diver with any weapon is more dangerous than a shark. The
seatbelt cutters—you literally can’t cut yourself with
them. But boy, they’ll cut through anything.
The problems later with the parachutes—this was always a problem
from the very beginning to the very end. Sometimes the chutes would
come back over the top of the booster, and you would have one leg
of the chute coming down this way and one leg coming down that way.
Then it would wrap up with another chute, and the whole thing would
look like a maypole. Then you have to try to decide. You can’t
really see where the chute ends up at. They’re all tangled together,
and you have to put floats on these lines. You’re trying to
get one big float or two smaller floats on each leg so that you can
float the chutes. If you don’t do it properly, when you cut
them loose, one chute can go away and you can wind up with four floats
on one chute and no floats on one chute.
That was a problem. You had to do a lot of looking around and up and
down, trying to figure it out. Sometimes it was very difficult. I
had tried way back in the ’80s to get the risers color-coded
so we would know which riser lines went to which chute, but I never
could. It was one of those requests that never made it up high enough
to get done.
there other inputs that you and the team sent back to the developers
of the parachutes and the SRBs that you felt came to fruition and
the SWARs. Getting the parachutes disconnected in any kind of manner
other than us having to do it by hand, that was very important. Way
more important than getting anything color-coded. That helped a lot
and made the job a lot easier and safer.
big were the floats?
changed over the years. Originally we were using these Oslo floats.
I’m sure you’ve seen them. They’re big red balls.
You probably see them with the smaller boats out here. They use them
all the time. They’re about this big around [demonstrates].
The bigger ones, they’re called Oslo 80s. I don’t know
exactly what the diameter is, but they’re the larger ones that
they make. We were putting four of those on each parachute. It took
at least two of them to float a chute. Later we started using ships’
fenders, the big white torpedo looking things. They’re that
big around [demonstrates] and three or four feet long. They come in
varying sizes. We would put two of those on each chute, one on each
the trip out were these housed on the back of the boat, or were they
inside the ship?
floats stayed up on the bow. We used them as fenders and as floats
for the parachutes, so they served a dual purpose. They’re much
bigger than the Oslo floats, so you didn’t have to use as many.
get those in the water—
drag them over. Too big to put in the boat, so we would throw them
in the water and drag them over. You had the lines already made up
to them, then you would just dive down and tie them in place. It worked
out pretty good.
mentioned the seatbelt cutters. Were there other unique tools that
you used for your job? You talked to us about the DOP.
had to put lights on the booster. When you’re towing something,
you have to put a light on it. If you have a barge that’s being
towed from a tugboat at sea, it has to have a bow and a stern light.
So we used magnetic lights for the front, and we’d basically
stick it on during the retrieval process, just go up to it in the
boat and throw it on there. Then we had another light that we would
actually put on at depth. We would put it where the hold-down posts
are on the booster, those leave four holes. We would put what we called
a DIPP in there, which stands for diver-inserted post plug. It was
basically a plug you could put in that hole. By turning it you expanded
the plug, and it would hold anything. We used it to put an eye in
there that we could put a cable on, or we used it for the stinger
that we made up later, and we had a light that we’d put in there.
Of course you had to train the divers to put it in the right hole,
because on the towback at least one of those holes is completely underwater.
So occasionally the divers would put it in the wrong DIPP hole and
the light would be underwater. Did John talk to you at all about the
little bit, but you can share with us if you’d like.
the booster would be in what we called a spar mode, which is sitting
up and down in the water with about 40 feet showing and 100 feet or
so underwater. When you got the plug in it and you started—you
didn’t really pump the water out, everybody wants to say pump—we
would actually blow air into it and force the water out, so it would
rise up in the water and then fall over into the log mode. Then with
the plug in there, it would keep dewatering until it got up to a certain
point, and then it would just quit.
There would always be a problem. Either the blue hose was wrapped
over the top of the booster, or some of the riser lines were left
on there and they were all over the forward light that we put on,
or something. I’d say at least half the time we would have to
put a diver—not in dive gear but just in his wet suit and booties—up
on the booster, and they would have to walk the booster and do whatever
work there was. Then they’d just jump in the water and we’d
pick them up. That was common.
interesting visual, walking along the booster out in the middle of
did have one case, maybe twice, where the canopy of the parachute
fell over the top of the booster completely, so that you have a booster
sitting in a spar mode in the water with a parachute hanging over
the top. The first time, you stare at it a while, like well, what
are we going to do with that. Finally we just put a couple guys out
there and had them climb up the parachute to the top of the booster
and pull the parachute off until finally it’s gone. Well, now
you’re up there, there’s nothing to do but jump the 40
feet to the water.
Did you have that experience as well?
I was in the boat saying, “Climb.”
there anything else? Jennifer, can you think of anything else?
I had one other thought. You had mentioned that there had been changes
to the parachute and the SRB. But there were other changes over the
years to the booster. The program was constantly improving its hardware.
Did that have an impact on your process and procedures as you went
to retrieve the SRB, or was that pretty uneventful?
thinking they were pretty innocuous because nothing changed the depth.
The main change to the booster was going to the J-seals after Challenger,
that was by far the biggest change. The ones that we noticed the most
were certainly parachutes. They were little things, like initially
they had directional finders on the boosters, and they had a light
on the top I believe. That went away when they started putting cameras
up there to look up at the parachutes. We never really needed a direction
finder. We were always there. Very very seldom did we not see the
boosters impact the water. We were as close as three and a half or
four miles away once, really spectacular.
The Ares was really spectacular. The ship I was on—I think it
was the Freedom—we were supposed to be in the impact area of
the booster. The other piece, the dummy first stage, was supposed
to go like 30 miles away from us. We never saw the booster come down,
but we did see the dummy first stage. It was 30 miles off, and it
had no chutes or anything. We were a good ways away, and it was a
pretty spectacular crash when it hit the water.
Hopefully you’ll have an opportunity sometime in the future
to see more spacecraft come down.
all would. Well, thank you. I appreciate it.