Sea Stories

The Space Shuttle

Steve Ewing

I was on the USS Kamehameha (SSBN 642), Gold crew. We had completed our overhaul in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, in Portsmouth, NH (actually, Kittery, ME) and had been doing post-overhaul workup out of Charleston, SC. The Kamehameha was a Poseidon missile boat, and part of the workup was to test the missile system by launching an actual missile. For this, we were sent to Port Canaveral, FL.

As the name suggests, Port Canaveral is the harbor at Cape Canaveral, and a portion of it is part of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. This base houses the Kennedy Space Center. The approach is an easy one, coming up heading about 315°, and then turning left to 270°. There are three basins to the north for the base, and the rest of the harbor is devoted to fishing boats, cruise ships, and pleasure craft.

The launching of a test missile is called DASO, Demonstration and Systems Operation, and several days are devoted to practicing for it. We would go out in the morning, submerge, man Battle Stations Missile, and spend the day practicing for the launch. It required so much practice not only to work up the crew, fresh out of overhaul, but because of all the monitoring and test equipment that would have to be operated. A telemetry mast was stuck in the sail, a tall non-retractable pole designed to project out of the water while we were submerged at launch depth for the test. This mast can be seen in many photos of missile launches, a red stick with various antennas hanging on to it.

One of the things this mast did was get fix data from a local Loran-A system set up for just that purpose. Loran-A is a short-range version of Loran-C, which probably doesn't explain much in this GPS age. In any event, fix data was plentiful, we didn't move around much, and we pulled back into an easy port every night with Cocoa Beach down the road and an Air Force club, the Greenhouse, right there at the piers. Life was good for a Quartermaster. In fact, since the local charts used an aerial photograph of the port on the chart, the Greenhouse was on the chart; occasionally Lt. Chuck Saunders, the Navigator, in a jovial mood, would use it as a navaid.

During our operations there, a space shuttle was scheduled to go up in a day launch. When that happens, a prohibited zone is established to seaward of the Cape that is off-limits to all craft. This apparently didn't apply to us, because there we were. We completed the day's run early, and surfaced early on the way in, so that the crew could come topside and see the launch. The crew on watch of course had to miss it.

The navigation team was stationed, so technically we were all on watch, but part of the surfacing routine was to rig the bridge, and the Quartermasters did it: I took that duty this day. I was a seaman at the time and so I would probably have been doing it in the normal course of things, but I made sure of it this time. The Quartermasters were also in charge of the binoculars; naturally every officer wanted to be on the bridge, and every officer wanted a set of binoculars. I made sure I kept a pair for myself, and was up rigging the flying bridge, and dawdling at it, so as not to be sent below during the big event. I was allowed to stay, even though it was getting a little crowded: the bridge on a 640-class submarine is about the size of a refrigerator-freezer on its back, with everyone standing inside it: three can fit fairly comfortably. The flying bridge is a set of stanchions or poles screwed into the top of the sail after surfacing and connected by chains or poles to provide some standing room with a degree of safety on top of the sail. Men on the flying bridge still had to wear safety harnesses, though, to catch them if they fell.

Various small craft were about, despite the prohibited zone. They seemed to be dividing their time between watching for the shuttle and staring at the submarine moving past.

Finally, the launch. We were pretty close, and of course had an unobstructed view. I do not think we were in sight of land, though, so we must have been maybe 15 miles offshore (my memory is pretty fuzzy on this). What I do remember is watching it go up almost directly over us, and being able to see the solid rocket boosters separate; the shuttle was past the zenith when that happened. I don't recall the sound, although we must have been able to hear it. After it was gone, we proceeded into port.

This was the launch where one of the SRBs sunk; the mission highlights page on the web states: Two solid rocket booster casings lost when main parachutes failed and they impacted water and sank. I distinctly recall one being returned, since the recovery tugs brought it back to the same pier we were using. I was standing topside watch observing the TV news crews busily filming where the SRB wasn't.

The date of the launch was April 4, 1983, and the shuttle was the Challenger, STS-6 (the Challenger's first launch). Details of the mission are at the STS-6 Mission Page.

That was the closest I have been to a launch, although when stationed on shore duty at Orlando Naval Training Center I saw many over the course of two and a half years: they could be seen from the base.

[Updated 30DEC07: corrected shuttle and date of launch-- webmaster]

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