PATRICK SPACE FORCE BASE, Fla. – Several boosters ignite sending giant clouds of smoke in all directions. A thunderous rumble can be heard for miles. In a matter of seconds, the spacecraft climbs into the sky carrying astronauts toward space.
Space launch is a frequent occurrence at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, where in 2020, the base supported 31 launches, including the return of manned space flight for the United States in May.
While multiple agencies including NASA and SpaceX work daily to bring astronauts to space, the 45th Operations Group Detachment 3 at Patrick Space Force Base is responsible for ensuring the safety of astronauts upon their return. In addition, the task force provides emergency rescue crews for all manned-space launches, which it will do April 22 for the SpaceX Crew-2 launch.
“For the Crew-2 launch, TF 3 will be comprised of approximately 140 members stationed at three locations including Guardian Angel rescue crews, aircrew flight equipment specialists, flight surgeons and HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Thompson, 45th OG Det. 3 commander. “The task force will also be supported by nearly two-dozen C-17 Globemaster III aircrews and maintenance professionals.”
These forces are focused on one objective, Thompson said, bringing astronauts home safely.
“Astronauts are a critical asset and it’s important we do everything possible to protect them,” Thompson said.
While in space, astronauts encounter a variety of hazards and stressors including radiation exposure, lack of gravity, environmental dangers and potential exposure to hazardous gas. They also experience a number of physiological changes.
“Prolonged exposure in a zero-gravity environment results in changes to the cardiovascular and neurosensory systems,” said Brent Maney, 45th OG Det. 3 medical division deputy. “Upon returning to Earth, our astronauts have a decreased fluid volume and impaired sensorimotor function. They are also at risk of light headedness and nausea. This weakened state compromises their functional capacity and ability for self-egress.”
All of this makes getting to the capsule containing the astronauts quickly after it lands in the water of critical importance, Thompson said.
“The speed of recovery using Department of Defense assets ensures the time astronauts spend in the capsule during a landing is minimized as much as possible,” Thompson said. “Our job is to stabilize the capsule and provide medical care to the astronauts.”
To ensure the members of TF 3 are mission ready, training is conducted year-round. The unit conducts rescue qualification courses every quarter and participates in a variety of exercises to hone their skills.
“Prior to any launch or landing, we run a rescue force qualification course (RFQC) and train between 21 – 30 members,” said Maj. Joe Waechter, 45th OG Det. 3 rescue flight chief. Waechter led the RFQC at CCSFS in February to prepare forces to support the human space flight mission set for April 22.
“During the course, we brief each member on our mission and inform them of the hazards they need to be aware of as they approach the capsule in the ocean,” Waechter said. “We also train everyone how to use specialized equipment so they can provide medical care to the astronauts on the water. From there, we run each team through a mock rescue scenario about nine times, so they are familiar with what to expect in the elements.”
The course is essential to ensuring TF 3 members are able to provide adequate medical care, Maney said.
“We train our DOD rescue forces to recognize and treat injuries and illnesses associated with spaceflight and prolonged space travel,” Maney said. “This includes potential injuries associated with aborts or landings, understanding the effects of zero gravity on the body and recognizing symptoms associated with space flight for unique patients.”
Another responsibility of TF 3 is ensuring every team member is in place when needed, providing rescue coverage for approximately 155 million square miles.
“We have attached forces that get assigned to us and we work to deploy them to three locations around the world,” said Capt. Rick Burges, 45th OG Det. 3 training chief and mission manager for the April 22 Crew-2 launch. “We will also have HC-130Js supporting us from Moody AFB, Georgia, and C-17s supporting us from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina.”
“In concert with deploying our forces, we coordinate with NASA and our commercial space partners, so they are aware of our capabilities,” Burges added. “This enables us to provide near worldwide rescue coverage.”
The Crew-2 launch is scheduled to be live-streamed on the 45th Space Wing Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/45thSpaceWing/) at 5:55 a.m. April 22.