PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Only months away from the first planned crewed space flight from the Space Coast since 2011, the 45th Operations Group, Detachment 3, is working hard to refine its command and control processes in the event they are needed to rescue our astronauts.
Det 3 is the only unit within the Department of Defense tasked to support contingency operations during Commercial Crew Program launches, alongside partners at NASA, SpaceX and Boeing.
For all crewed flights, Det 3 plays the role of overseeing postured rescue forces on alert at Patrick AFB, Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. The rescue forces are made up of total force Airmen from Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Space Command to include Active Duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Airmen. These Airmen have mastered an array of specialties; from pilots and flight doctors to pararescuemen and communication operators.
From Nov. 18-22, Det 3 conducted an exercise pulling together command and control through Combined Force Space Component Command distributed operations here; as well as ground support operations at Joint Base Charleston, and execution by Air National Guard forces out of Hawaii, Alaska and New York.
During this time, the team simulated a launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, with an anomaly occurring shortly after liftoff. The simulated astronauts would dislodge from the spacecraft and their capsule would splashdown in the ocean. The command team quickly responded and coordinated with NASA’s Launch and Recovery Team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as well as the Launch Support Officer team at Johnson Space Center in Texas, to collect information on the anomaly and projected landing location.
Det 3’s main objective was to determine how their team, operating from the Patrick AFB Support Operations Center, would collect information and then coordinate the rescue operation.
Based on the scenario presented, the Det 3 team coordinated an alert launch of the C-17 Globemaster III and Guardian Angel rescue forces on standby at Joint Base Charleston, whose mission is to proceed directly to the capsules location and provide immediate medical capability to the simulated astronauts.
Relaying information to the aircrew and updating mission particulars en route is just one piece of the puzzle. Once updated coordinates are passed to the aircraft, they often still need to conduct a visual search for the capsule while communicating through voice radios. The 144th Airlift Squadron in Alaska and the 204th Airlift Squadron in Hawaii have experience with visual search procedures; and have been working over the past couple months to refine and improve their capabilities in order to execute this mission.
Communication from the aircraft to the astronauts in the capsule is critical in order to evaluate their medical condition prior to utilizing the Guardian Angels and their equipment. Communications during an operation like this can be hectic and confusing, so the team worked on clearly and concisely collecting and relaying information back to the DoD flight doctor. The doctor, housed in the SOC back at Patrick AFB, is to coordinate with NASA to determine where the crew will be transported for follow-on care.
Responding to and rescuing astronauts is not a simple task; that being so, the team has been planning and preparing for crewed launches extensively over the past years. Det 3 has worked with SpaceX, Boeing and NASA to develop very precise procedures and specialized equipment to ensure the response forces can rescue the astronauts and transport them to medical care as quickly as possible.
At the same time, the National Guard crews flying the C-17 and the Guardian Angels jumping from the aircraft, have been fine-tuning their training to ensure the likelihood of successful rescue is as high as possible. Although the C-17 does not typically conduct rescue operations, crews from Hawaii and Alaska Air National Guard units exercise limited rescue training, which they have been building upon for this national priority mission.
The Guardian Angel teams are rescue experts, but rescuing astronauts from a space capsule is not part of their everyday repertoire. In order to successfully carry out this mission, the Guardian Angel teams take part in a three-week training which will prepare them for the intricacies of space medicine, dealing with deconditioned astronauts, hazard detection techniques to safe the capsule and procedures for extracting the crew from the spacecraft. As part of this exercise, a Guardian Angel team from the 103rd Rescue Squadron of the New York Air National Guard, loaded their rescue equipment on the C-17 in New York and then flew to Joint Base Charleston with the crew to be on alert. Rescue equipment for this scenario can include small inflated rescue boats, advanced rescue maritime vehicles and specialized support equipment to stabilize the capsule in the ocean.
Det 3, a unit that has been involved in the rescue of astronauts since the Apollo program days, has put in countless hours organizing exercises and ensuring that the rescue forces are ready to support NASA anywhere at any time.
Det 3 and their rescue force teammates live out the same motto; these things we do, that others may live, so that an astronaut’s worst day is not their last.
(With contributions by Lt. Col. Michael Thompson, 45th Operations Group Detachment 3 commander)