HomeNewsArticle Display

Sharks' support helps shuttle soar

(left to right) Maj. Bill Hobson, Mr. Larry Malbon, Lt. Col. Carl Halcomb and Lt. Col. Robert Lindsay make preparations for an upcoming shuttle launch in the Support Operations Center. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class David Dobrydney

(left to right) Maj. Bill Hobson, Mr. Larry Malbon, Lt. Col. Carl Halcomb and Lt. Col. Robert Lindsay make preparations for an upcoming shuttle launch in the Support Operations Center. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class David Dobrydney

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- When the Space Shuttle Endeavour lifts off tonight from Kennedy Space Center, it will have some invaluable Air Force assistance from 45th Space Wing members from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to Patrick Air Force Base to Spain.

The 45th Weather Squadron, 1st Range Operations Squadron, and Detachment 3 of the 45th Operations Group all provide crucial support before, during and after a shuttle launch.

"We're lucky - we get to be on console, running the countdown for the Range," said Mike Gawel, program support manager for the space shuttle in 1 ROPS. He does day-to-day business with NASA, ensuring their requirements for the Eastern Range are met. "I attend up to 10 readiness briefings, and oversee pre-launch operations such as on-pad validation, and final ordnance installation and the Terminal Count-down Demonstration Test, which is coordinated with the rest of the wing," said Mr. Gawel.

Ninety days prior to launch day, an Air Force team is assigned to the launch. This team includes Surveillance Control Officers, who monitor the air and sea space surrounding the pad to keep stray planes and boats away, and the Range Control Officer, who on launch day is the liaison between the 45th Space Wing and the NASA Test Director at Kennedy Space Center regarding any potential instrumentation problems during the final countdown. "The range team has the ability to stop the countdown for any safety or user-mandatory requirements if they are not met," said Mr. Gawel.

Neither rockets nor the space shuttle can go anywhere if the weather doesn't cooperate, and that means the 45th Weather Squadron works 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide up-to-the minute forecasts. "Our squadron provides weather support for all pre-launch, launch, and post-launch operations," said Launch Weather Officer Kathy Winters. That includes transport of the external tanks and payload as well as the moving of the shuttle itself from the processing facilities to the launch pad.

Daily updates are provided to the Launch Director so that movements can be scheduled around inclement weather. For this particular mission, weather threatened the payload canister lowering and roll-around in October. "We gave the Shuttle team several days lead time on this weather, and they moved the payload operations one day earlier and the roll-around operations two days earlier to beat the weather. This allowed them to complete the operations and protect the vehicle before the weather threatened the area," said Ms. Winters.

While the Weather Squadron makes sure the shuttle avoids delays before launch, Detachment 3 is making plans just in case something goes wrong once liftoff occurs.
Detachment 3 is primarily responsible for coordinating astronaut rescue, recovery and medical operations and running the annual Mode VIII exercise, which simulates an ocean landing and subsequent rescue of astronauts.

On launch day, the office coordinates the aircraft from the Air Force, Marine Corp and Coast Guard aircraft that are on standby at Kennedy Space Center for launch pad emergencies and other contingencies. The office also supports the Transoceanic Abort Land-ing sites in Spain and France, deploying members to support a possible emergency landing in those areas.

Control of these varied and spread-out resources is back at Patrick where, starting a day prior to the launch, Det 3 members run the Support Operations Center (SOC). They will remain there monitoring the shuttle's progress until its safe return.
The office is commanded by Lt. Col. Michael Tillema, who said that while this is his first shuttle launch, "this is certainly the best job in the Air Force."