Ship that hit Ky. bridge has precious space cargo

AP News
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Posted: Feb 06, 2012 5:23 PM
Ship that hit Ky. bridge has precious space cargo

The hulking cargo ship that tore through a western Kentucky bridge last month is carrying millions of dollars of rocket components that will be used to blast satellites into space for NASA and Department of Defense missions.

The Coast Guard on Monday allowed the Delta Mariner to move away from the damaged bridge so that debris, including twisted steel and asphalt, could be cleared from the boat's bow. The five-story tall ship struck the bridge on the Tennessee River on Jan. 26, tearing away a span and halting traffic on the western entrance to the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

The boat is carrying an Atlas V rocket and a Centaur upper stage component that belong to a rocket system that typically costs hundreds of millions of dollars to launch. The rocket parts had been sitting stranded on the ship for about 10 days until the Delta Mariner was moved on Monday.

"The salvage operations are proceeding as planned, and it is a significant milestone that the ship has now been relocated downriver and clear of the" bridge, Coast Guard Cmdr. Claudia Gelzer in Paducah said in a statement.

The Delta Mariner was headed to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., with the rocket parts when it hit the 90-year-old bridge, known locally as the Eggner's Ferry Bridge.

The company that built the rocket parts, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has declined to give the value of the components on board the boat. The company has said the cargo was not damaged in the bridge collision and it will remain on the ship so it can eventually be taken to the Florida coast.

The upper stage that's on the boat is an essential component of the Atlas V rocket system, said Warren Ferster, editor of Space News International, a Virginia publication that covers commercial and military space topics.

Ferster said he was not aware how much the separate Atlas parts are worth but he said it's reasonable to estimate the cost of building the upper stage component is in the tens of millions of dollars. The Air Force typically pays between $200 million and $300 million for an Atlas V launch, which includes the assembled rocket, fuel and other launch costs, he said.

The rocket parts on board the Delta Mariner will be used to launch a secure military satellite communications system, called the AEHF-2, that will give the Department of Defense more communications capacity and will be able to resist jamming and other attacks in space.

The boat also is carrying a rocket component for an August NASA mission that will study radiation belts surrounding the earth. NASA awarded a $600 million contract to United Launch Alliance in 2009 for four Atlas rocket launches, including the radiation belt study mission.

The Atlas V is a popular launch vehicle, which was used to propel a NASA Mars rover in November and a Jupiter explorer that blasted off in August. United Launch Alliance is also working with NASA to get the Atlas V approved for sending humans into space.

The Coast Guard says an investigation into the cause of the boat crash is ongoing.