Expanding the Mission

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Tenley Long
  • Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Nearly 50 years ago, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins made the journey back from the moon onboard Apollo 11. The men passed into Earth’s atmosphere and made a splash landing in the Pacific Ocean. This was the end of the astronauts’ journey, but it was only the beginning for rescue and recovery teams. 

Recently, Airmen of the Alaska Air National Guard’s 144th Airlift Squadron partnered with NASA and Detachment 3 of the 45th Operations Group to see if the C-17A Globemaster III is suitable for assisting in astronaut-recovery efforts.

“The C-17A provides the cargo area, speed, and air-refueling capability that allows for worldwide employment to rescue astronauts,” said Alaska Air National Guard Lt. Col. Jeffrey Banker, 176th Operations Group deputy commander. “The C-17A continues to be tasked heavily for world-wide missions, and the challenge remains to find enough tails and crews with the right training to accomplish this new mission set.”

The pilot said the latest test was part of an ongoing effort to bring the Globemaster fully into NASA operations.

“The 144th has been working for four years to help develop this new capability,” Banker continued. “We look forward to this spring when we expect to sit alert to be available to rescue a commercial crew that has a non-nominal launch or recovery.”

Det. 3, based at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, is responsible for coordinating astronaut rescue and recovery support for our nation’s human space flight programs. This unique mission requires careful planning and coordination between NASA, the Department of Defense and other supporting agencies. 

“Search and recovery operations are really important,” said Maj. Adrian Gonzales, assistant director of operations for Air Mobility Command Test and Evaluation Squadron, and C-17 Globemaster III instructor pilot. “It’s a peace of mind for the astronauts who will be going into the capsule and potentially putting their lives on the line in order to continue space exploration. In the event that they do have to abort the mission, or land in the ocean – for whatever reason – they know the Air Force is there to make an expedited recovery of the team.”

Currently, this mission is accomplished using aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules and various helicopters, but the Air Force is continuously looking to improve processes, procedures and expand capabilities. 

In efforts to see if Det. 3’s mission could be improved, AMCTES conducted the C-17 suitability test. 

“After takeoff the crew will fly approximately 40 miles southeast to the drop zone,” Gonzales said. “Once they become established and comfortable with the procedures for the air drop of the illumination flares and position marker, we’ll then go through and actually deploy the flares from the ramp of the C-17. From there, we’ll collect data from a test perspective. Confirming if the flares are exiting the aircraft safely will be the biggest take away, as well as identifying any safety issues we might have with the actual techniques and procedures.”

Test Directors from AMCTES, located at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, led the test with the support from members of Det. 3. The test participants included C-17 aircrew from Joint Base Charleston, S.C., and Air National Guard members from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

“AMCTES, as an operational test organization, seeks to use operators that are currently employed by active squadrons to be able to get their input,” said Master Sgt. Thomas Litteer, AMCTES senior test director. “By doing this we get a better picture of how the current warfighter would benefit from the test we’re using, as well as a much better unbiased opinion of what we evaluate.”

“This test is actually really amazing to be a part of,” said Capt. Jason Dorn, 15th Airlift Squadron instructor pilot and aircraft commander for the mission. “Understanding who exactly we are helping is NASA astronauts – It’s kind of a kid’s dream to be helping astronauts fly to space and safely return. The C-17 provides a great opportunity to help with that recovery, although the 437th may not directly help with that recovery, what we’ve accomplished in the test will help the units be prepared for when the time comes and they’re required to help astronauts return safely from space.” 

Although the results of this test will not be available until after the appropriate parties review it, the C-17 remains an important asset to the Air Force and Department of Defense. It’s the most flexible cargo aircraft to enter the airlift force. 

The potential capabilities as a result of this test mission would allow a C-17 to arrive at an objective location faster and stay there longer, while additionally being able to provide follow-on air drop assets from the Guardian Angels, who are personnel recovery specialist. If the results of the test were proven successful, rescue and recovery efforts could expand. 

“We’re checking the suitability of the tactics, techniques and procedures to deploy the illumination flares and markers from the ramp of a C-17,” Gonzales explained. “We’re looking to confirm that it’s suitable for crew members to go out and execute. That’s our desired end state. When it comes to any short comings, I’m confident that the crew will be able to identify those and adapt to the situation in a safe manner and continue with the mission.”

Once completed, participants shared feedback from the mission to provide Air Force leaders a finalized test report, enabling them to make an informed decision on whether or not the C-17 could be used in this capacity. 

“What I think the test and evaluation squadron is going to look at is how we as a crew came together to employ those tactics, techniques and procedures, because it takes a lot of coordination between our pilots in the front, and our loadmasters in the back,” Dorn said. “I think what really matters is why this change has been driven. In the past when we had the Apollo mission, the entire nation was fully focused on that, and we had an aircraft carrier picking up our astronauts when they returned. 

“The assets we have tasked today might not necessarily have the flight distance and loiter time required to conduct this type of mission. The C-17 could provide a lot of additional capabilities to extend the mission out for longer periods, over further distances, and with more rescue equipment and Airmen to support those astronauts.”

Although the C-17 has not been confirmed to utilize the capability, the efforts made to conduct the training shows the military’s drive for improvement and process betterment. 

“Technology is ever-changing, and the Air Force moves along with it,” Litteer said. “If we have the capability to make something better and improve, why wouldn’t we better utilize that in the upcoming years? The detachment at Patrick Air Force Base is primarily responsible for human space flight support, and they could ultimately be affected by this potential change.”

If successful, the C-17 could join in supporting bringing astronauts home, causing one less problem for Houston. 

Editor’s note: This story was edited to localize for the Alaska Air National Guard.