It's more than just Tang: Air Force combat rescue experts lead the way to seek, save NASA astronauts lifting off into space

By Capt. Cathleen Snow 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs

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PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- It's more than just Tang.

But famous orange breakfast drinks and space shuttles with orange rocket boosters will soon become faded memories of the last 50 years of human spaceflight as NASA closes its space shuttle chapter with one final launch this year, and one to two more in 2011.

As the spotlight shines on five men and one woman in tang-colored space suits preparing for their journey to the International Space Station Nov. 8, a less well-known group of Airmen of slightly more than the same number lead the charge of 300 men and women in green who have been there since the beginning - to save the astronauts' lives in the unlikely event of a disaster.

With more trips to space than any of the others, the upcoming launch will be Space Shuttle Discovery's last, and it seems to be hesitating the inevitable as it's on its fifth delay since its original Nov. 1 ignite date.

"We got rescue coordinating a rescue operation," said Col. Robert Lipira, deputy commander and director of Air Force Northern Command's Joint-Task-Force Shuttle, operations division, to the 100-person audience of all five branches of the military and NASA civilians. All are gathered at the 301st Rescue Squadron here to prepare for one of the largest rescue operations in the world.

Colonel Lipira has 23 years of combat-search-and-rescue experience as a navigator on the HC-130P/N King aircraft and 13 years experience as a King air boss supporting the shuttle contingency effort.

Like Colonel Lipira, each of the Airmen in key positions have a resume laden with multiple deployments to one or more of the following: Operations Desert Storm, Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and the Combined-Joint-Task-Force - Horn of Africa.

Their combat-search-and-rescue experience makes them the most qualified aviators and medical experts for the job of finding and saving the lives of the six humans who must safely harness the power of the shuttle's rockets for their journey upward.

"Find them in three (hours), rescue them in six (hours)," said Colonel Lipira of the timeline laid out to the audience of rescuers. "No one else has this long-range search-and-rescue capability," he said. Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters are equipped with the ability to refuel while in flight during extended overwater rescue operations which makes them ideally suited for the job.

The Air Force Reserve Command's 920th Rescue Wing took over as the primary search-and-rescue force for the shuttle response in 1993 when the unit moved here from Homestead AFB in Miami. The 920th and the 45th Space Wing's Human Spaceflight Detachment here, which manages the medical aspect, are connected at the hip during the rescue process.

In addition to Colonel Lipira's rescue expertise, each of the flight lead positions, held by 920th Rescue Wing pilots, have "tons of experience," according to the colonel, and the lead medical position is held by a doctor from the 45th Space Wing, with the same.

Maj. Steve Sartain, 920th King navigator, is the on-scene commander and King 1 air boss; Lt. Col. Bruce Schuman, 920th HH-60G Pave Hawk pilot, is the Jolly 1 air boss,(jolly is the nickname of the pave hawks); Lt. Col. John Brodeur, 920th king pilot, is in charge of the operations portions of plans and programs - the preplanning phase.

"I would be the JTF commander's right-hand man to get rescue assets moving," said Lt. Colonel Brodeur.

And 920th jolly pilots, Lt. Col. Tim Davis and Lt. Col. Phil Kennedy, are the air liaison officers and both certified air bosses. "They'd talk to the aircraft crews (doing the search)," said Colonel Lipira.

"Our job is to think as far ahead for you, as possible," said Colonel Lipira during the JTF in brief Nov. 2 to the mixed audience, to ensure a successful outcome.

"My big piece of the puzzle would be a Mode 7," said chopper pilot Lt. Colonel Schuman. I'd launch (the pave hawks) if a Mode 7 was declared and get NASA fire rescue teams and Air Force pararescuemen on the ground." Modes 1-7 are ground emergencies.

In the event of the worst-case scenario, a Mode 8 contingency, the Kings would be utilized to begin searching for the astronauts in the water if they had to bail out over the open ocean during lift off.

"Coordinating assets and allocating them properly to rescue all the astronauts," will be the biggest challenge if that happens, said Major Sartain.

Lt. Col. Lars Ulissey, Chief of Bioastronautics, 45th SW, Det. 3, leads the military medical personnel.

He recently joined the rescue team five months ago from his previous assignment supporting the Alaska Red Flag squadron of F-16 Falcon pilots out of Eielson AFB. No stranger to combat, prior to that assignment, he flew aboard aeromedical combat evacuation missions providing critical medical care to servicemembers wounded on the battlefield.

"Our docs are paired with teams of Air Force Pararescuemen (PJs) and placed on helicopters, to sit alert near the launch and landing sites. They're ready to be called into action, at a moment's notice," he said.

Kennedy Space Center is just one of three of these emergency landing sites, the others are Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. and White Sands, N.M. Each site has close to the same number of resources and personnel ready to go as here.

"Some are active duty while others are members of the Guard or Reserve who spend a majority of their time in civilian practice. They all come prepared to focus on the mission at hand, but delays in launch and landing (like this one)  inevitably lead to scheduling problems back home," said Colonel Ulissey.

"The current group of "air docs" come from places like Michigan, Indiana, Texas, California and Florida. They have all assisted with previous missions, and two have logged nearly 40 shuttle launches, which means that not only is this a particularly experience group of docs, but also extremely dedicated," said the colonel.

The lead PJ is Tech. Sgt. Dan Warren, 920th Rescue Wing. Although they are paired with the doctors, the PJs are highly trained trauma specialists and will utilize their airborne parachuting skills from the King to get to an astronaut in the ocean or deploy from the helicopters using several different infiltration methods they train for regularly.

"They are our insurance policy that we hope we never have to use," said Mr. Gregg Faddis, NASA Landing and Recovery Director.

"We have an exceptional working relationship with them recently shown in a Mode 7 exercise that tested the response of a space shuttle engine failure causing the orbiter to return to the launch site one minute after lift off."

At a time of transition as the space shuttle nears its scheduled retirement after almost 30 years, 6 - 7 astronauts, 300 men and women in green and thousands of civil servants and contractors throughout NASA's field centers and across the nation have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to mission success and the greater goal of space exploration.

NASA's space shuttle fleet began setting records with its first launch on April 12, 1981 and have carried people into orbit repeatedly, launched, recovered and repaired satellites, conducted cutting-edge research and built the largest structure in space, the ISS.

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