When Trouble Comes to Shuttle, DoD Comes to Rescue
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., April 30, 1999 When the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after being launched from Cape Canaveral in January 1986, a small defense organization here marshaled a rapid response.
"We cranked around the clock," said Air Force Col. Tom Friers, commander of the Defense Manned Space Flight Support Office. "When it became obvious it was a recover [remains] operation, we brought in the Navy supervisor of salvage."
Even though downsizing has reduced his office to a staff of 30, Friers' organization controls a thousand people, plus ships, aircraft and other resources on shuttle launch days. From command posts here and at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, a mix of active duty and Reserve Air Force and Navy staff augment NASA and support any contingencies, from launch to landing. This includes posting 35 DoD and 35 NASA and contractor personnel at every alternate landing site in the United States and overseas activated for a launch.
If a problem occurs -- a forced landing or over-water bailout, for example -- the DoD agency coordinates and exercises tactical control.
The launch positioning and bailout capability was added to the agency's mission after the Challenger catastrophe, Friers said. Since 1995, the 920th Rescue Squadron, an Air Force Reserve unit based at Patrick, and the Air National Guard 10th Rescue Wing of Long Island, N.Y., train to assist shuttle contingencies as well.
Why DoD? "We already have capabilities NASA needs," Friers said. "So, rather than duplicate, we coordinate DoD-unique capabilities on a noninterference basis with the normal combat mission." For example, DoD provides long-range, air-refuelable helicopters with special rescue packages.
An outgrowth of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, the DoD Manned Space Flight Support Office received its charter in 1959. The office subsequently supported every manned space flight program, including Project Mercury, Project Gemini, Project Apollo and the Space Shuttle Program.
Today, the commander in chief, U.S. Space Command, serves as the DoD manager for manned space flight support. He reports through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the defense secretary. Under his charter, the Patrick office has direct access to all DoD organizations to coordinate and control shuttle mission support.
"It's a short chain of command by design, so when the balloon goes up, we can get recovery resources on very short notice," said Air Force Lt. Col. Joe Torsani, chief of plans and programs at the support office.
Chairman's Instruction 3440.01, "DoD Shuttle Contingency Policies and Procedures," tasks DoD to assist astronauts in the event of accident, distress or emergency landing. As the Space Command chief's delegate, the support office controls all DoD forces at predesignated mission-abort sites. When the office requests, theater commanders in chief execute the DoD action plan.
Practicing for the contingencies is crucial, Torsani said. "The last thing we want to have happen, for example, is for a commander to show up at an alternate landing site, receive an abort mission and not know what to do." Torsani and others customize briefings and training scenarios for each alternate landing site.
Besides rescuing astronauts and supporting landing sites, DoD provides emergency medical care; ferries the orbiter aboard specially equipped Boeing 747s; provides contingency communications, weather, command and control and public affairs support; conducts salvage operations; and supports other NASA requests, as long as they don't interfere with the primary defense mission.
If a problem occurred during a shuttle launch, depending on its severity and how far the shuttle has gone, NASA plans call for several different abort profiles. These include returning to the launch site, a transoceanic abort landing at one of the four alternate landing sites in Spain and Africa; or a single orbit of earth followed by an abort landing back in Florida, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., or White Sands Space Harbor, N.M.
If the astronauts are forced to bail out over the ocean, NASA believes the bail out most likely would occur within 200 nautical miles of Cape Canaveral. During a launch, Navy ships stand by in the area until given an all-clear.
"A problem is most likely to occur during the launch phase," Torsani said. "If and when an abort becomes necessary, NASA takes a step back and hands DoD the stick."
Nobody here wants a shuttle emergency, Friers said, but if one occurs, the commander of a little unit with a big mission is confident he's got the right mix of people and talent to ensure DoD comes through.