Shuttle Down! DoD-NASA Team Tests Contingency Response
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 30, 1999 Marsh birds wade slowly in the brackish swamps. An alligator, belly bloated, moves sluggishly across dry mud. Pesky flies buzz and flit from bush to bush. There's no other discernible movement.
In dense foliage not far from a now empty runway, the tall, white mockup of a space shuttle orbiter seems out of place. NASA placed it there to train fire and rescue workers and prepare shuttle crews how to react if the shuttle misses or overruns the landing strip.
NASA officials are quick to point out that such a contingency is unlikely to occur, but they know they must be ready for the unlikely and unknown. Because it has the resources to do so, DoD provides NASA with crash and rescue services worldwide. The Defense Manned Space Flight Support Office at nearby Patrick Air Force Base is the primary link between the two agencies and coordinates all DoD involvement.
In the scenario played out March 16, the space shuttle Discovery has returned from an 11-day international space station mission. Upon approach to Cape Canaveral, it loses energy and turns toward the dense brush. A simulated crash landing placed the shuttle in an area inaccessible to NASA emergency crews on the ground.
The situation is called a Mode VII setup, which despite its name is one of just three landing contingencies NASA and DoD practice. The others are Mode V, a landing mishap on or near the runway where the shuttle crew escapes the orbiter unaided or with help from the rescue crew; and Mode VI, where the rescue crew can reach the shuttle by land to assist the astronauts. In Mode VII, rescuers can't reach the shuttle by land and, instead, have to be lowered from helicopters.
The office also conducts a Mode VIII, ocean bailout exercise at least annually, but this is the first time in four years it's done the NASA-run landing mishap. Air Force Col. Tom Friers, the Manned Space Flight Support Office commander, believes land- based scenarios should be exercised more frequently and hopes to have another one in the fall.
On the NASA flight line, four Air Force Reserve HH-60 helicopters from Patrick's 920th Rescue Group stand by while a NASA UH-1E circles the crash site. The Reserve pilots and pararescue jumpmen -- PJs -- are poised, ready to respond as soon as they get the word. They learn NASA firefighters must be dropped into the crash zone and now scramble to reconfigure the aircraft cabins to accommodate them and the medical equipment and supplies needed on the drop.
"Jolly 1," the lead HH-60 Black Hawk, makes several low passes over the treetops as the "air boss" looks for the best place to insert the rescue team and equipment. He selects a flat area with tall grass adjacent to the forest, 200 feet from the orbiter. Soon, the firefighters arrive and descend on thick, green "fast ropes" from the other hovering helicopters. Because space shuttles contain many hazardous fuels and chemicals, the firefighters wear pressurized silver suits and liquid oxygen backpacks they'll breathe from.
The helicopter carrying the doc and PJs also carries Advanced Cardiac Life Support and Advanced Trauma Life Support equipment. "The PJs have to be certified in ACS and ATS, and the docs are certified flight physicians trained in survival, from either the Air Force, Army or Navy," says Greg Loudermilk, a program analyst in the Space Flight Support Office's medical division and a PJ, himself.
"Every PJ is combat-search-and-rescue-qualified and an independent medical operator," Loudermilk said. "They're used to working with mass casualties in the field and carry with them special communications and medical equipment. They're trained to understand and respond to the kinds of health problems astronauts may have at re-entry."
The Black Hawk carrying the medics arrives on scene. The PJs and Naval Reserve Dr. (Cmdr.) Jay Phelan descend ropes, then receive their equipment as it is lowered by cable from the chopper. They'll wait at the drop zone for the firefighters to bring them survivors.
While the helicopters complete their aerial drops, another NASA rescuer driving a huge all-terrain vehicle has managed to carve a path through the dense brush and soon whisks the firefighters to within 30 yards of the orbiter. They know the orbiter like it's theirs -- how to shut its electrical systems down, where the crew members are positioned.
Nimbly, they remove a hatch cover, enter the orbiter and determine that the crew has survived the crash landing but there are injuries. Using rigid plastic litters, they remove the crew one-by-one, talking to them, trying to comfort them. After loading them into the ATV, they rush the astronauts to the drop zone, where the PJs and flight surgeon wait behind a "clean- dirty line" -- established by the PJs by stringing yellow police tape between two bushes.
On the dirty side, the firefighters wave Draeger tubes over the astronauts, checking them for contamination. Some are contaminated, and their rescuers spray them with decontamination "wash" from hand-held plastic bottles.
Once the astronauts are decontaminated, the firefighters pass them across the clean-dirty line to the PJs, who in a real contingency would begin loosening or cutting away the space suits and checking the extent of injuries. For training purposes, nobody's wearing the $80,000 space suits -- that part and the cutting is simulated, although the Manned Space Flight Support Office has one reusable cutaway suit and a video used for training at alternate landing and mission-abort sites worldwide.
One of the rescuers removes the NASA helmet from a "survivor," Navy Dr. (Cmdr.) Laurel Clark. Her blue NASA flight suit simulates a space suit, and the sergeant gently loosens it at cuffs and waist to help her breathe.
Phelan and the PJs stabilize their patients and call in medical evacuation helicopters to transport them to hospitals. NASA uses a network of Florida civilian hospitals in Melbourne, Titusville and Orlando, Gainesville and Daytona. They, too, participate in the exercise.
NASA and DoD infrequently test their ability to rescue astronauts if the shuttle crashes on land, because a bailout at sea is more likely, said Air Force Maj. Dean Gordon, a space shuttle contingency officer. At sea, DoD has total responsibility for an astronaut rescue, and the Manned Space Flight Support Office tests its "Mode VIII" capabilities at least once a year. But because NASA and DoD have overlapping responsibilities during an on-land shuttle contingency, setting up an exercise takes more time. The recent lull in the shuttle launch schedule, however, prompted the DoD agency to push for a Mode VII exercise.
"These exercises are critical for getting people used to handling contingencies such as this," said Clark, an astronaut since 1996. "It's unfortunate we can't exercise more than we do."
Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Lenz, chief of operations in the flight support office, said other astronauts feel the same way. "The feedback we get from the astronauts is that they appreciate the interface," Lenz said. "It gives them a little higher level of confidence knowing somebody is going to be watching out for them."