PATRICK AFB, Fla. -- A 45th Space Wing team supporting the landing of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in Kazakhstan became Good Samaritans when they arranged for the medevac of a critically ill DoD contractor.
Three members of the Human Space Flight Support (DDMS), based at Patrick AFB, liaisoned with NASA and a DoD Aeromedical Evacuation team to support the Sept. 29 landing in Kazakhstan. Aboard the Soyuz were Russian Cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, U.S. Astronaut Jeffrey Williams and the world's first paying female space tourist, Anousheh Ansari. The capsule landed safely to conclude a 10-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
"Fortunately, our DoD team was not required to conduct an aeromedical evacuation of any astronauts," said Lt. Col. James "Nick" Seaward, HSFS Chief. "The team, however, was able to utilize its incredible medical capability and evacuated a DoD contractor from the U.S. Embassy in Astana, Kazakhstan, and transported him to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, for the medical treatment he needed."
HSFS Command and Control and Medical Liaison Element members Maj. Lou Muniz, Jay Summers (Maj., USAF ret.) and Don Shelton (Chief Master Sgt., ret.) supported the mission.
The team flew into Kazakhstan in advance on a commercial aircraft to work with the U.S. embassy to get diplomatic clearance for a U.S. Air Force C-17 to fly from McGuire AFB, N.J., to Ramstein - to pick up three medical teams on its way to Astana, Kazakhstan. Major Muniz, deployed forces commander, was in charge of all DoD personnel in the back of the C-17. Mr. Shelton, a retired AF pararescueman, was the search and rescue coordinator for the mission. Mr. Summers served as communications specialist, responsible for all satellite communications.
The satellite communications came in handy - for unexpected reasons.
"The embassy employee became ill," said Mr. Summers. "We came in Wednesday, they notified us Thursday, they moved him to a hospital in Astana, and they stabilized him in the hospital, and that's when we started working."
"The patient was in a critical medical condition, which required stabilization, and transport to a definitive medical care facility, which is Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany," said Mr. Shelton.
In the meantime, the team had to clear some hurdles.
"We had to coordinate this through CENTCOM, because we were a EUCOM mission in support of STRATCOM, but operating in CENTCOM's area of responsibility," said Mr. Shelton. "We got clearance from CENTCOM and Astana to get the patient aboard.
"We also had to get a CENTCOM flight surgeon to clear the patient for flight. This was all done in real time on the 29th - all done while we were standing alert for the Soyuz," he continued. "It was interesting, but it worked perfectly."
NASA, which had paid for the aircraft, approved the medevac mission, Mr. Summers said.
"You couldn't ask for a better advocate for helping out," he said. "We think that anyway, but this just proves NASA is a class act."
The DoD team just happened to have a C-17 with a very robust medical capability in the back, including surgeons, an anesthesiologist and a critical-care nurse. The medical teams received the patient - transported to the aircraft by a Russian ambulance - and immediately began working on him.
"The guy got poked and prodded," said Mr. Summers. "They had 100 things hooked up to him."
"The patient was very appreciative," said Mr. Shelton. "He didn't say much because he was tubed, but he was glad he was able to get a ride to Landstuhl."
Team members said the satellite communications were extremely helpful.
"Using INMARSAT we connected directly into the Johnson Space Center, with lines to KSC, through the Cape and down to the Support Operations Center at Patrick and the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg," said Mr. Summers. "We established communications, and when released from SOYUZ support, switched out to the Global System for Mobile communications cell phones."
There was only one cell tower at the airport. The cell became overloaded, so the team switched to using the Iridium handheld satellite phone, he said.
"Then the airplane had a ground maintenance problem, so we went into a backup plan," said Mr. Summers, a former active-duty pilot. "There was a little hand wringing, and increase in pucker factor, but the crew chief found the problem, fixed it and got the flight on its way. It made you proud of the military, being a civilian, the whole thing. We were in the middle of nowhere; being able to pull it off was great."
"He was one lucky guy," Summers said. "He couldn't have been in a better position in the entire world. It's unfortunate to get sick overseas, but if you're going to, do it with a Soyuz medical support team on hand."