By Lynda Yezzi Valentine, 45th Space Wing Public Affairs
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFPN) — When Space Shuttle Atlantis rocketed into the pre-dawn sky May 19 and the astronauts on board were going through their launch checklists, military members inside a small room of Building 423 here, were going through checklists of another kind — contingency checklists.
Needed only if something goes wrong with the shuttle, the men and women of the Department of Defense Manned Spaceflight office sit at consoles in the Support Operations Center here, coordinating a myriad of aircraft and ships around the world.
Their primary job is to be ready to respond to an incident and hope they are never needed. Because if they are called, the astronauts are either attempting to return to Kennedy Space Center, abandoning the shuttle somewhere over the Atlantic, or attempting to reach a Transatlantic Abort Site somewhere off the coasts of Spain or Africa.
While Atlantis’ liftoff was picture perfect and those manning the SOC and those deployed around the globe went home unneeded, less than a week prior to the real mission, DDMS practiced the launch with a mock in-flight emergency.
The scenario, called a "mode," tested the ability of DOD search and rescue forces to locate, recover and provide medical treatment to the astronauts. There are eight modes, which refer to various emergencies the shuttle can possibly encounter. Modes one through four involve launch pad emergencies; modes five through seven are landing mishaps; and then there is the mode eight — the most extreme situation where the shuttle crew bails out of the orbiter.
This particular training exercise began exactly like a real-world launch with supporting DOD and Department of Transportation aircraft and personnel arriving here a couple of days prior to the simulated launch. Although the units participating don’t vary, the actual crews flying the missions do change frequently, requiring DDMS personnel to brief all portions of the shuttle launch before each mission.
"It’s DDMS’ job to properly brief and integrate these forces from different services and components into an efficient package, said Col. Tom Friers, DDMS commander, "something we do for every Shuttle launch."
Just like a real shuttle launch operation, the DDMS crews spent the morning of the simulated launch deploying to their pre-determined positions and waiting for the countdown to "T" minus zero. Meanwhile, back at Houston, a shuttle crew flying an ascent simulation was about to encounter multiple emergencies, which would lead to a failed attempt to return to the Kennedy Space Center.
When the mission audio made it clear the shuttle was experiencing trouble and would not be able to make it back to KSC, the DDMS crew went on full alert. Once the shuttle commander declared a Mode VIII, the rescue forces sprang into action.
To provide as much realism as possible, the seven astronaut ‘survivors’ participating in the exercise included four actual astronauts. The survivors traveled by ship approximately 65 miles off the coast of the Cape, where they were set adrift in the ocean inside the personal lift rafts they would be required to use in a real bailout scenario.
Once in the water, the survivors checked their equipment and tried to contact rescue forces via radio. Meanwhile, a short distance away, safety boats kept a watchful eye on the exercise participants in the water. For added realism, the rescue aircraft responding to the Mode VIII were forced to fly a 100-mile corridor prior to proceeding to the bailout area. Within 30 minutes, the first rescue aircraft was circling overhead, looking for survivors in the general area where the shuttle ‘went down.’
Coordinating with an ‘air boss’ who orchestrated the search and rescue efforts, each of the aircraft and ships participating in the rescue worked together to locate the downed astronauts, while a separate Navy aircraft coordinated the movements of all assets within the rescue zone, called ‘the SARDOT.’
Once the survivors had been located, teams of pararescue specialists, or PJs, arrived on-scene with a deployable zodiac boat package known as a RAMZ. Once the PJs were in the water, they proceeded to the astronaut survivors and began administering first aid.
The PJs evaluated the medical conditions of the survivors based on information provided by cards each was wearing and by symptoms the survivors relayed to their rescuers. The PJs then provided that medical information to the flight doctors onboard each orbiting aircraft who, in turn, recommended treatment for each survivor.
Once stabilized, the PJs loaded the survivors onto a ship or aircraft and the flight doctors continued to treat the astronauts on the way to a local hospital, which was chosen based on the injuries and the capabilities of specific hospitals.
According to Friers, the exercise was a complete success. "The numbers speak for themselves — from a dead stop 150 miles away, the rescue force scrambled, launched, and recovered all survivors within 2 hours and 15 minutes of their bailout," he said. "More importantly, although the exercise involved approximately 700 people performing many ‘high risk’ maneuvers, the whole thing went off without a single injury." (Courtesy of Air Force Space Command News Service)