NASA Depends on Freedom and Liberty

When most people think of the ships in NASA's fleet, they think of the space shuttles that pierce the sky as they carry astronauts toward space. But NASA has two seagoing ships, Liberty Star and Freedom Star, which also stand ready on shuttle launch day. Their crews' mission is heading to sea to retrieve the two solid rocket boosters that power the shuttle's ascent.

"A typical crew that we carry is 24 people. We've got ten crew, ten diver specialists, and retrieval operations personnel," says Freedom Star Captain Mike Nicholas, a 24-year booster retrieval veteran who works for United Space Alliance. "We depart the port 24 hours in advance. It takes us roughly 12 to 15 hours to get offshore to our SRB impact area.

Then we'll stand by, and do surveillance work to keep other vessels out of the area so that when the launch goes, we have a window that the boosters can come in safely without any traffic being around."

The crews, divers and ships are prepared long before the solid boosters ignite at the launch pad.

"We're ready to go before launch," says Larry Collins, Manager of Dive Operations for United Space Alliance. "We'll have all the diver gear ready, all of our camera gear ready, all the retrieval equipment ready to go. The reels will have all the lines on them, everything that we use for retrieval will be ready."

But diving isn't their only function during their mission at sea.

"The divers are also the retrieval team," explains Collins, "so the divers operate the cranes, they operate the small boats, they operate the reels. They are multi- functional. They're the diver medics that operate the recompression chambers, they fill the tanks, they lead the dives, they do the diving. Everybody is doing everything."

While most eyes are still glued to the shuttle's climb, the crews and divers aboard these two vessels are on alert, ready to power toward the boosters' impact zone in the Atlantic Ocean to begin their work. When the boosters are spent, they are jettisoned and fall to the sea as the shuttle's main engines finish the job of lifting the spacecraft out of Earth's atmosphere and into orbit.

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