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Joint Base Charleston hosts rescue team ahead of NASA human space flight mission


NASA launched a human space flight mission called “Launch America” carrying two U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station in coordination with Space X and the Department of Defense, May 30, 2020.

The launch and the mission to the ISS marked the first time since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011 that a U.S. manufactured rocket carried astronauts into space. It also demonstrated the U.S. government’s commitment to space, space exploration, and ensuring free and continued access.

As a precautionary measure, U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Air Force assigned teams of search and rescue professionals to stand alert ahead of the launch at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina; Patrick Air Force Base, Florida; and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

The teams comprised pararescuemen, combat rescue officers, and aircrew flight equipment specialists who were ready to board HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopters, HC-130J Combat King II rescue aircraft or C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at a moment’s notice and perform open-ocean, airdrop-enabled rescue operations to extract, stabilize and ensure transport to definitive medical care, if needed.

“We all want this to go well and hope we’re not called,” said Alaska Air National Guard Lt. Col. Jeff Banker, the human space flight rescue team mission commander and commander of 144th Airlift Squadron, 176th Wing. “We’re happy to go out there and assist our guys [and] provide them peace of mind in climbing into the capsule.”

Banker added this was the first time a rescue element has been added to the C-17’s mission list.

“The C-17 allows us extended reach in our rescue missions,” he explained. “It has allowed us to go farther distances and respond to scenarios that maybe other teams wouldn’t be able to accomplish.”

Had a “pad abort” or an anomaly within the first few minutes of flight occurred, the forces at Patrick Air Force Base would have immediately deployed to conduct an open-ocean rescue of the crew, returning to pre-selected hospital facilities for definitive medical care. Further up the ascent track, or in the event of a “once-around” emergency, forces from one of the other locations, including those at Joint Base Charleston, were prepared to utilize the speed and reach of the C-17 Globemaster III to locate the capsule and airdrop the rescue team, boats and emergency equipment.

“As with any rescue, time is critical,” said Maj. Marcus Marris, a rescue division chief assigned to the Department of Defense Human Space Flight Support Office out of Patrick. “If somebody is injured you want to get to them fast. Every minute counts. We don’t want to be reactionary, we want to be proactive and leaning forward in rescuing our guys and getting hands on the capsule as soon as possible.”

The DOD has a long history of supporting NASA’s human space flight programs. DOD assets maintain a constant state of readiness and are uniquely postured to assist with these operations, especially in regard to crew module recovery. The DOD’s Human Space Flight Support mission is a steady-state, enduring mission requiring long-term support and resourcing to contribute to NASA’s crewed space flight efforts.

“The DOD has the technical expertise and range which allows for us to ensure the safety of all those who participate in these launches as well as NASA and its commercial partners,” said Mike McClure, a search and rescue team technical expert assigned to the DOD Human Space Flight Support Office at Patrick AFB. “It’s nice to be on the cusp of the mission and see it happen.” 


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