When I was younger, I was a little incredulous over claims that the space shuttle was a reusable spacecraft. First, the three rockets they attached it too fell off during launch just like the separations of the Apollo launches, and secondly, from what I heard they had to replace half the orbiter parts each time. (I’m typing like I’m 15 here, so then I didn’t really know SRBs or external tank.)
But like most teenagers, I was wrong. 😉 Both the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) and the external tank are retrieved after launch and reused. The return of the SRBs is a post-launch event much anticipated by many hardcore space fans. A handful of Tweeps from Fridays launch hung around until Sunday and posted some pictures of the SRB returns.
The SRBs are sectional, and different parts have been used on different flights. The top cylinder on the left SRB flew on the first and final space shuttle launches as shown here.
Two ships, the Liberty Star and Freedom Star, are unique vessels specifically designed and constructed for this task, and are sent out days in advance of a launch to be about 9-11 miles from where the SRBs will drop. They return to KSC, pass through a drawbridge, Canaveral Locks, and transit the Banana River to Hangar AF, often at widely different times. For the final launch, the left booster arrived back late (around 8:40 pm) on Sunday towed by the Freedom Star, while the Liberty Star and the right booster arrived first near noon. I think. I can’t find the exact times, but some sources said 8:40 and noon, respectively.