Explained: NASA’s Rocket Booster Recovery After Space Shuttle Launch

Reusing boosters helped NASA reduce the cost of its next mission.

rocket booster recovery
Image: NASA

Reusability is a desirable quality, especially in things that would cost a fortune to build from scratch. For that reason, America’s national space agency NASA incorporated this trait to a degree into its space shuttle launches. In other words, the Space Transportation System (STS) worked in a way that allowed the reuse of the orbiter and the solid rocket boosters.

While the orbiter (the vehicle carrying astronauts) glided on its way back to Earth like a plane, rocket booster recovery proved a bit more complicated. The pair of boosters, which helped the space shuttle blast off from the ground, fell into the ocean and had to be recovered using towing boats.

From diving into ocean depths to getting them aboard NASA ships, there’s a lot involved in rocket booster recovery. Here’s a video that takes you through the entire process.

How do rocket boosters end up in the ocean?

Rocket boosters are only there to help the orbiter launch towards space using solid propellants. They detach from the space shuttle about two minutes after launch. Once detached, they would begin descending rapidly before ultimately parachuting their way onto the Earth’s surface. Since all these launches occurred at the Kennedy Space Center in the east-coast state of Florida, the boosters ended up in the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

Thanks to precise calculations, NASA’s team would always know where the boosters would likely fall in the ocean. They started recovery preparations as early as 24 hours before launch.

How are rocket boosters recovered?

The rocket booster recovery process involved employing a team of expert divers and NASA towing vessels Liberty Star and Freedom Star. At least four hours before each launch, they would clear the impact area and ready the equipment for the recovery process. Generally, NASA ensured at least ten divers and ten crew members aboard the towing boat.

freedom star towing recovered rocket booster
Freedom Star towing a rocket booster. (Image: NASA)

After the boosters floated down and sank into the water, the crew would get to work. They would first recover the parachute, followed by the frustum and drogue parachutes, using an onboard crane. Next, a team of divers would carry a plug underwater and attach it to the booster. Then, the divers connect an airline to the booster, which blows air into it and forces the water out. This results in the booster rising and floating in the water.

As soon as the booster is afloat, the crew attaches steel cables to it for towing the same. Most things, including the parachutes and boosters, are refurbished for the next mission. The final booster recovery before the end of the space shuttle program was in 2011.

While you are here, make sure to check out the most catastrophic rocket failures in history.

Priye Rai

Priye Rai

Priye is a tech writer who writes about anything remotely related to tech, including gaming, smartphones, social media, etc. He prefers to be called a "video game journalist" and grimaces when he doesn't get to be "Player 1." If you want to share feedback or talk about games, reach out to @priyeakapj on Twitter.
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