CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. --
When space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-135 mission lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on July 8, 2011, emotions were high. A history book, penned by NASA, spanning 30-years of manned space shuttles was now closed. Few were certain when the United States would send an astronaut into space again, if ever.
Years have passed and American astronauts have been sent to the International Space Station onboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, the current human spaceflight transportation vehicle, but the U.S. is gearing up to bring human spaceflight back to American soil. Human spaceflight could return to the U.S. as early as 2019 and a unit within the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., will play a direct role in the recovery and rescue of landing astronauts.
As astronauts prepare to land back on Earth from space, one unit is responsible for their recovery and rescue, Detachment 3 from the 45th Operations Group. Det 3 is the Department of Defense’s office of primary responsibility for all aspects of human spaceflight recovery. This includes the development of rescue tactics, training and equipping of forces, real world execution, and overall command and control rescue aspects of the human spaceflight missions.
“We work with NASA and the commercial crew providers, Boeing and SpaceX, to develop procedures for how to respond to and rescue NASA-sponsored astronauts,” said Lt. Col. Michael Thompson, Det 3 commander. “For the last four years we’ve been working hand-in-hand with the providers to ensure that we can rescue astronauts anywhere in the world at any time.”
Det 3 is comprised of pilots, combat systems officers, pararescuemen, combat rescue officers and survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists. They work hand-in-hand with various rescue squadrons nationwide to assure pararescuemen, also known as Guardian Angels, are always available to recover astronauts from space capsules in the event of a contingency during a launch or landing, and all phases in between.
“When it comes to the rescuing of American astronauts, there is no commercial force available that can go anywhere in the world to rescue astronauts and provide medical aid within 24 hours,” said Brandon Daugherty, Space Medical Contingency Specialist at Det 3. “There is only one force that is able to rescue our astronauts whether they be in the deepest oceans or the highest mountains and that’s the Guardian Angel forces and Detachment 3. If you couple that with our aircraft that can reach anywhere in the world, you have a team that’s really hard to beat.”
As technology has progressed through the years, astronauts are no longer going to space in shuttles – but in space capsules. While exiting Earth in a space shuttle was almost like flying a plane directly into the atmosphere, landing back on Earth in a capsule is much different. For example, re-entry for a Soyuz capsule, according to some astronauts, is often described like a series of car crashes.
Once the capsule re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, it lands in the ocean. Det 3 is not alerted for normal recovery operations. However, if there is a contingency, Det 3 is alerted and their team rallies to recover the astronauts, who are potentially incapacitated from the atmospheric changes and force of the landing.
Det 3, alongside NASA, SpaceX and 920th Rescue Wing personnel, held an exercise on Dec. 12, 2018 at Patrick AFB and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It included a full simulation of a rescue and recovery effort that rehearsed astronaut recovery operations from start to finish.
“For this exercise we simulated a rocket launch that would result in a return of astronauts to Earth,” said Daugherty. “We gathered our Det 3 personnel, the 920th’s HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter pilots and HC-130 Hercules pilots as well as their Guardian Angels and, briefed them on the simulated launch, the astronaut information and the schedule for the day.”
Next, the simulation began. A group of Det 3 personnel gathered in the Support Operations Center, essentially a command and control center, and sent word to the crew participating in the exercise that astronauts landed off the coast of the Cape. The postured forces then went to determine how to rescue the astronauts, Daugherty explained.
“Our pararescuemen boarded the HC-130’s here at Patrick and flew to the designated exercise area at the Cape,” said Daugherty. “They jumped from the aircraft into the water, along with several bundles of rescue supplies that were sent down from the plane as well. One of the bundles included what we call a ‘front porch’, which is an inflatable device, similar to a 20 man life raft, designed to provide a platform for medical response that is attached to the capsule.”
According to Daugherty, once all pararescuemen and supplies landed safely in the water, the main objective of the exercise was to stabilize the capsule. The capsule was rigged with rescue materials dropped from a HC-130 and then pulled into the wind and waves to stabilize it so that the team was able to simulate pulling the astronauts out.
Exercises like these help test the rescue equipment, stabilization and recovery procedures, as well as how the team will operate in the event an astronaut is injured or incapacitated. With talk of a return to human spaceflight occurring soon – Det 3’s services will soon be needed more than ever.
“The next six to eight months will be very busy for us,” said Thompson. “We have many other exercises planned with both Boeing and SpaceX and we’re continuing to support the Soyuz mission. We have two or three more Soyuz returns prior to our own first crewed launches scheduled for next summer.”
As the United States progresses further on its path toward a return to human spaceflight, it seems that the history books have reopened and a new chapter is being written. A chapter penned by Detachment 3, NASA and various commercial launch providers that are on the cusp of making human spaceflight on American soil possible again.