Coast Guard Investigation Points to Royal Caribbean After Canceled SpaceX Launch

The US Coast Guard completes its investigation after Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas caused the cancellation of the SpaceX launch.

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The US Coast Guard concluded an investigation that puts the blame for a canceled SpaceX rocket firmly in Royal Caribbean’s hands. The Harmony of the Seas departed Port Canaveral back in January when it sailed into one of the exclusion zones the Coast Guard had created to protect the public in case of an emergency. 

Due to the vessel being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the rocket’s launch had to be canceled. Harmony of the Seas had no authorization to be in the area. However, the US Coast Guard did admit that communication protocols between the vessel’s Captain and the authorities were lacking.

Rocket Launch During Busiest Time of The Week

Having the world’s most important rocket launch site and one of the biggest cruise ports in the world in virtually the same place could be considered a potential hazard.

Yet, Port Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center launch pads are just a few miles apart. No wonder a problem came up during one of the busiest days of the week for cruise ships.

Harmony of the Seas had just departed Port Canaveral on January 30 when it sailed into the exclusion zone the Coast guard keeps during rocket launches. The launch was scrubbed just seconds before blast-off, with the launch director calling out, “Hold! Hold! Hold! Aborting launch auto. This is the launch director calling a hold. We have a red range for a fouled range, with a ship in the hazard area.”

The exclusion zones, also known as Launch hazard areas, are areas of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida that are closed to maritime traffic during rocket launches. The rocket’s trajectory and payload define the launch hazard areas.

While the locations are communicated to ships, communication broke down due to the busy schedules on Sunday in Port Canaveral.

“This is the second-busiest cruise ship port in the world,” Capt. Mark Vlaun, head of the Jacksonville Coast Guard unit responsible for monitoring launch zones, said: “There are times, particularly like a Sunday night, when you’re going to have 11 to 15 cruise ships departing this port.”

Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas Cruise Ship
Photo Credit: Jillian Cain Photography / Shutterstock

The Coast Guard enforces the safety zones per Title 46 U.S.C. § 70002 and 70036. If a vessel does violate them, the Coast Guard may pursue action, including monetary fines or vessel control actions.

Although Royal Caribbean was found in violation during the January 30 launch, the Coast Guard did not say if and what fines would be handed to the cruise line. SpaceX finally managed to launch the Falcon 9 rocket a day later on the fifth attempt. Harmony of the Seas cruise remained unaffected. 

New Measures Implemented

To ensure the same does not happen again, the Coast Guard has been working on implementing several new rules intended to prevent the same from happening again. However, some of the blame lies squarely with the maritime industry, which still relies on paper for disseminating information.

Capt. Mark Vlaun: “In the maritime industry, rocks don’t pop up overnight. Buoys don’t move every day. We can publish these on paper. Four or five days or even a week old is probably still good data. But five-day-old space launch information is not worth the paper it’s printed on.” 

Port Canaveral Cruise Ships
Photo Credit: Robert Michaud / Shutterstock.com

The changes include updated exclusion zones and new modern ways of disseminating launch updates to ship captains. The new rules also consider the possible delays a rocket launch could have on cruise ships.

If a launch were to delay a ship from coming into port, it could cause significant disruptions; tens of thousands of cruisers could see ripple effects that would lead to possible flight delays at airports and delayed departures for cruises. 

To prevent this from happening, the Coast Guard is reviewing the routes cruise ships take from Port Canaveral, implementing consistent, predictable routes, which will help with de-conflicting issues before they arise.

Ships and rockets are not always a bad combination. This week guests onboard Carnival’s Mardi Gras had a front-row seat during a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Kennedy Space Center, just as the vessel left port. 

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