PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
The signature ink on the memorandum was still drying, but it had already begun to take effect.
On August 10, 1959, the newly signed memorandum established the Department of Defense Manned Spaceflight office (DDMS) and its duties to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). They were now responsible for providing worldwide rescue and recovery of astronauts and planning resources and personnel leading up to recovery missions.
DDMS, now the 45th Operations Group’s, Detachment 3, is the only unit within the DoD tasked to support contingency operations during Commercial Crew Program launches, alongside their mission partners. For over 60 years, they have consistently continued to ensure mission success by enabling worldwide recovery and rescue of astronauts.
But every legacy starts somewhere, and one of the most pivotal moments for Det 3 came almost 10 years later when they would face one of their biggest challenges to date—providing rescue and recovery for the crew of the Apollo 11 mission.
Leading up to recovery, multiple training exercises were conducted with U.S. Navy divers and U.S. Air Force pararescuemen. Plans, documents, and procedures were debated, created, and coordinated. Countless man-hours consisting of blood and sweat were dedicated to planning and organizing the necessary people and equipment prior to splashdown.
Thanks to the amount of hard work and preparation DDMS personnel put in prior to launch, 6,927 personnel, 54 aircraft and 9 ships were able to support Apollo 11 operations and successfully recover the crew on July 24, 1969.
"It's amazing to think that 50 years later we are still here providing worldwide recovery and support for human spaceflight operations," said Lt. Col. Michael Thompson, 45th OG, Det 3 commander. "50 years later, our office runs on the same grit and determination that put man on the moon."
Unlike the name, the mission at Det 3 has remained the same. They have evolved as NASA requirements and programs evolved. Moments like the successful recovery of the Apollo 11 crew are why Det 3 continues to be a pillar of human spaceflight operations.
“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.”
Before and after Apollo 11, Det 3 has worked with mission partners to develop procedures and conduct numerous exercises, like full simulations of astronaut recovery operations. This ensures that if there is a contingency during launch or re-entry, they are ready to support NASA anywhere, at any time.
Witnessing the coordination and execution that goes into just one exercise is enough to overwhelm the average person.
A full simulation of a rescue and recovery effort was scheduled for Dec. 12, 2018, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, with Det 3, NASA, SpaceX, and 920th Rescue Wing personnel participating.
On Dec. 12, before the exercise starts, a briefing is held with the team going over plans and the exercise schedule for the day.
Afterwards, Det 3 personnel gathered in the Support Operations Center at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., to alert the crew that astronauts had landed a few miles off Cape Canaveral. Now the exercise begins.
Aboard HH-60 Pave Hawks and HC-130 Hercules, pararescuemen are waiting. Bundles of rescue supplies are also waiting, including a “front porch”, an inflatable device designed to provide a platform for astronaut medical response and will be attached to the capsule waiting in the waters below. 920th Rescue Wing pilots soon reach the designated exercise area.
Leaping out of the HC-130’s and into the murky waters below, the pararescuemen and supplies make their way to the capsule. Plunging into the waves, the pararescuemen disconnect their parachutes and begin to work towards the capsule.
Like trying to thread a needle during an earthquake, when trying to reach the capsule they are consistently jostled by the waves. Up and down. Side to side. But by staying cool under pressure, and because of their hard work and constant training, they are able to stabilize the capsule and later complete the exercise.
After building a storied legacy of successful astronaut recovery operations, Det 3 is gearing up to add to that legacy and make history once again. On May 27, 2020, as we return to human space flight operations as a U.S. Space Force unit, Det 3 Airmen will be there. Ready to provide worldwide astronaut rescue and recovery, they will be there ensuring we continue to set the pace for space.
What began with signatures and paragraphs on memorandum letterhead is now being continued as human space flight operations return to United States soil.