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Cape takes delivery of next Atlas 5 aboard Mariner ship

Posted: February 23, 2012

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A month after striking a darkened bridge in Southern Kentucky and a span of roadway collapsing onto its bow, the rocket-carrying Delta Mariner cargo vessel finally sailed into the Cape Canaveral wharf Thursday.

File image of the Delta Mariner cruising off the Cape Canaveral coast. Credit: Boeing
The ship, which is used to transport rocket stages from the manufacturing factory in Alabama to the two primary U.S. launch sites in Florida and California, hit the Eggner's Ferry Bridge in Kentucky while trying to pass beneath it Jan. 26.

A section of the bridge that crosses Kentucky Lake and the Tennessee River was knocked down in the mishap. The bridge was opened to traffic in 1932.

The Delta Mariner is owned and operated by Foss Marine, a shipping firm that hauls United Launch Alliance Delta 4 and Atlas 5 components to Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The ship was carrying the next Atlas 5 rocket to Cape Canaveral from the factory in Decatur, Alabama, when the crash occurred at U.S. Highway 68 and Kentucky Highway 80 over the Tennessee River on Jan. 26 at 8:15 p.m. Central Time.

Although the crash remains under investigation, lights on the bridge apparently weren't working the night of the incident and the ship tried to pass under one of the lower, outer spans instead of the higher, center lane.

Remarkably, there were no injuries aboard the ship or to people driving across the bridge at the time.

The Mariner was heading northward on a course to intercept the Mississippi River en route to the Gulf of Mexico on what's typically a week-long, 2,000-mile trek from Decatur to Cape Canaveral.

After removing the tangled bridge structure and roadway from the Mariner, the ship sought repairs to its superficial damage in Paducah, Kentucky, before resuming the trip to Florida last Friday. The vessel was certified to proceed on the voyage by the American Bureau of Shipping.

It reached Port Canaveral and safely docked at the unloading area adjacent to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's south gate Thursday afternoon.

File image of Atlas 5 unloading from the Mariner shows the Centaur (left) and first stage (right). Credit: NASA
"An incredibly talented and dedicated team came together to support this recovery and repair operation in an exceptionally safe, professional and timely manner," said Dan Collins, ULA's chief operating officer. "On behalf of the ULA team, I thank and congratulate everyone who played a role in the salvage operation."

With the vessel now at the Cape, technicians will be unloading the Atlas 5 rocket first stage and Centaur upper stage for launching the Air Force's second Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF 2) ultra-secure communications satellite on April 27 during a window of 3:08 to 5:08 p.m. EDT (1908-2108 GMT).

The spacecraft was shipped aboard a C-5 aircraft from Lockheed Martin's satellite plant in California to the Cape on Feb. 13 to begin its own pre-launch preparation campaign.

Despite the delay getting the rocket to the Florida spaceport, officials say there should be no impact to the planned launch date.

Also aboard the Mariner is the interstage adapter for the Atlas to deploy NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes in August.

The cargo area of the ship was instrumented during the trek and data indicated no harm was done to the rocket stages in the bridge collision.

The 312-foot roll-on, roll-off ship was commissioned in 2002. Over the years, it was used primarily for bringing Delta 4s to the Cape before taking on Atlas 5 as a new passenger last summer in the consolidation efforts between the two rocket families under United Launch Alliance.

See file photos of the Mariner delivering a Delta 4-Heavy to Vandenberg.

Video and pictures of the collision and bridge collapse can be seen on the local NBC affiliate's website here and here.

With the Atlas 5 rocket now ready to roll onto Florida soil this weekend, the stages will be taken to the high bay at the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center for brief checkout and storage before they are brought one-by-one up the road to the Vertical Integration Facility to begin stacking aboard the mobile launch platform. That assembly work, however, won't begin until after Friday's planned launch of an Atlas 5 rocket with a Navy satellite using that same platform.