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7.2.19 - AA2 Coast Guard Support

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

While NASA's Ascent Abort 2 test flight took only a matter of seconds to complete its mission, it was the culmination of countless hours of effort from a myriad of teams working for NASA and the Air Force. However, on the day of the launch, the Coast Guard served an important role to protect the restricted zone and keep the mission go for launch. It has been a number of years now since I served on a small boat crew with the Coast Guard, but watching this crew work quickly and efficiently made me miss those long days on the waters of Trinity and Galveston Bay in Texas. This post is a tribute to my fellow Coasties working hard in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

We left our hotel roughly 2 hours prior to the AA2 launch in order to secure our position on the end of the Jetty Park Pier in Cape Canaveral, Florida. When we first arrived on the pier around 5am, the only real traffic in Port Canaveral was the continuous droning of a dredging vessel anchored in the center of the channel. The crew tirelessly worked to clear the floor of the channel to the prescribed depth. However, moments later I noticed a very familiar silhouette and the tell-tale blue lights of a Coast Guard small response boat (RBS II) out on the dark water securing the southern edge of the restricted launch zone.

The concrete pier we stood on ran parallel to the Southern Jetty and sat only a few feet inward from the boulders of rough stone that made up the port's defenses from rough seas. Looking across the waters below us, the gnarled silhouette of the Northern Port Canaveral Jetty extended out into the shallow waters of the Atlantic Ocean, with the thin band of Cape Canaveral reaching partially across the long horizon beyond. Barely visible in the dim light, the lit pad of LC-46 sat quietly and unassumingly just inland from the nose of the Cape.

Hints of the impending sunrise gathered in the clouds above before fading abruptly into the broad, cerulean mass of the Atlantic Ocean. A consistent wind buffeted the pier from the North, and created a mildly choppy terrain for the Coast Guard vessel to navigate.

As we neared an hour to launch, the pier was beginning to fill with more and more people excited to see the launch. Without much else to entertain us on the far end of the pier, everyone was focused on the work of the large dredger, and the numerous occasions that the Coast Guard had to chase down a vessel to keep them out of the restricted area down-range from the launch.

In one particular instance, a small fishing boat slipped by and gunned it directly towards the launch site while the Coast Guard was busy talking to a vessel that it had stopped just moments prior. The whole launch could have been delayed by just a single, errant vessel. I know the local authorities must have been issuing warnings on marine radio broadcasts to stay out of the area adjacent to Cape Canaveral for the launch (a common occurrence in this area), but I guess not everyone monitors the proper channels prior to getting underway. The Coast Guard crew did a fantastic job of intercepting and redirecting the vessel before it got too far.

The underside of the clouds glowed brighter and brighter as it became clear that the sunrise was nearing the horizon. However, the rippled surface of the ocean seemed unfazed by the sky's transformation and maintained a cool blue that defied the incredible array of colors above.

When the sun finally crested the horizon in a glowing orb of brilliant yellow, orange, and red, the incredible power of the light engendered a deep contrast across the landscape [See the entire sunrise here]. Hints of the warm light shimmered off the flat spots between waves, while conversely the back side of the waves accented the surface with a deep, ink-black shadow. With the remaining minutes waning before the launch, the Coast Guard vessel patrolled the water beyond the mouth of the port, waiting patiently for the next vessel to head out to sea.

The RBS II (Response Boat - Small II) boats are solid, heavy vessels made primarily of aircraft aluminum. However, the twin Honda 225 outboards on the back always seemed to provide plenty of acceleration and maneuverability when needed. The more I watched the crew chase down the boats leaving the port to warn them of the restricted zone, the more I missed being part of a small boat crew.

As the sun reached higher into the sky, there was less atmosphere to diffuse the light, so the sun's rays quickly became a bright white ball of radiant energy that was too bright to view through the 600mm lens. The sky slowly slipped to a candy orange, and the glistening sunlight danced across the surface of the ocean. These moments are incredibly beautiful when viewed from land, but they can be treacherous when on the water and heading into the sun. It was much easier for my camera to tone down the light than it was for my eyes to overcome the glare.

Only minutes before the launch of the AA2 Test Vehicle, the light was finally sufficient enough to get a good picture of the AA2 rocket/pad and the Coast Guard RBS II as it moved back into the jetties to intercept another vessel. It was a salient juxtaposition of the boat crew the purpose of their mission waiting silently along the horizon beyond.

With the southern restricted zone well protected by this Coast Guard crew, AA2 was able to launch exactly on time without any delays due to vessels down range [See the launch post here].

Our thanks go out to the men and women of the Coast Guard who work tirelessly to keep NASA's and the Air Force Space Command's (now the Space Force as of 12.20.2019) missions go for launch. This crew in particular did an exceptional job of navigating the difficult mission of securing the restricted launch area for AA2. Additional thanks go out to the men and women of the US Navy who also assisted with this launch, but they were too far out at sea for me to photograph (and they didn't post any official information on the recovery for AA2 in particular).

I don't know if anyone from that crew, Station Port Canaveral, or the Coast Guard as a whole will ever see this post, but I hope they know that their hard work was appreciated by everyone involved in the AA2 launch, especially those that watched their hard work rocket into the bright, Florida sky.

© 2020 Shaun C Tarpley

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