For crowds watching the final Space Shuttle launch last friday, the show may have seemed like it was over as soon as the Endeavor flew out of sight. But off the Florida coast, far away from the launch pad, the crews of the MV Liberty Star and MV Freedom Star were just getting started.
These two ships, which are based at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sail out to find and recover the Shuttle's two solid rocket boosters (SRBs) after each launch. While those huge white rockets provide most of the thrust for the shuttle's initial ascent, they separate from the craft about 75 seconds after liftoff, falling back to Earth and splashing into the Atlantic Ocean on enormous parachutes.
Getting the SRBs back to shore is no small feat. Each one is 150 feet long and 12 feet wide, and weighs roughly 200,000 pounds---that's after it's done burning through nearly one million pounds of solid rocket fuel. So how does NASA recover them?
Well, as some of you might remember, I'm fond of NASA videos (full disclosure: I went to Space Camp as a kid)--and while browsing launch footage on YouTube, I came across the clip below shortly after the Endeavor reached orbit. It's a look behind the scenes on the Liberty Star and Freedom Star, showing the unique way that their crews wrangle each SRB once they find it:
(Editor's note: This footage is was taken during STS-133, the final mission of the shuttle Discovery in March 2011.)