MARINE BASE HAWAII - When NASA's Orion spacecraft returns from its missions beyond the moon, the crew module will splash down in the ocean just like the Apollo capsules that took men to the moon and back in the 1970s.
The space agency needs to make sure the rescue support equipment for the Orion crew module is practical, so NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and the Department of Defense Human Space Flight Support Office turned to the New York National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing to help test it out.
From February 27 - March 10, 43 members of the wing teamed up with the Hawaii Air National Guard's 204th Airlift Squadron to practice using the equipment NASA designed to support the crew following deep space missions.
Pararescuemen from the 106th Rescue Wing's, 103rd Rescue Squadron jumped from the C-17s flown by the Hawaiian Air Guard with the NASA gear configured on a rescue boat and practiced inflating it and working with it while floating in the Pacific Ocean.
"That's the major objective; how do we get that stuff into that boat and make it fly out of the plane and land on the target appropriately?" said Brent Maney, a former Air Force pararescueman who now works with the Human Space Flight Support Office.
The Human Space Flight Support Office coordinates military support to the space program.
A key piece of the "stuff" on the rescue boat is an inflatable platform known as a "front porch". The front porch is designed to attach to the capsule and provide a stable area where astronauts can shelter and receive medical attention if necessary following the splashdown of their spacecraft when pararescuemen are called in.
NASA has one prototype front porch platform which the New York Air Guard members tested in the waters off Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
The New York and Hawaii Air National Guard conducted nine jumps during three flights to test out the NASA support equipment.
Two boats—known as a "hard duck" to pararescuemen because they are dropped inflated and fully loaded—were accompanied out of the Hawaiian Air Guard C-17 by six jumpers. Each team included 103rd Rescue Squadron pararescuemen and Combat Rescue Officers, as well as pararescuemen of 88th Test and Evaluation Squadron, a unit that tests and develops rescue systems and equipment.
Each boat was fully loaded with rescue gear and a motor. The front porch itself weighed in at about 350 pounds. That boat was first out of the plane on each flight.
The 106th Rescue Wing had already planned to send a team from the 103rd Rescue Squadron to Hawaii to participate in the Hawaii National Guard's annual Sentry Aloha air defense exercise. NASA took advantage of the scheduled event to use the Airmen's expertise to test the rescue gear, said Tim Goddard, the flight lead for NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab, who designed the equipment.
The Neutral Buoyancy Lab trains astronauts in spacewalking procedures in a 6.2 million gallon swimming pool where they simulate a weightless environment. Training on employing the Orion capsule floatation systems was done there as well.
Initial tests of Orion recovery systems were conducted by Navy divers and ships. But the spacecraft might have to land someplace where the recovery ships aren't, so NASA also needed to test the ability of the equipment to be dropped from a plane during a "contingency" rescue, Goddard explained.
"It's the first time we have ever done it air dropping," Maney said. "Because of its size and weight, we need to see how it handles."
"The PJs (pararescue jumpers) drop these boats all the time, but they haven't dropped these boats with this equipment in them. So they've got to figure out how this large front porch fits into that boat along with all the gear the guys normally carry on a rescue mission," he explained.
During an actual mission, the pararescuemen and the C-17 crew would work together to drop the team near the floating Orion crew module, which looks like a larger version of the gum-drop-shaped Apollo capsule.
For these missions the Airmen aimed at a float made up of Crew Module Uprighting System floatation bags. Five of these airbags, which look like beachballs, inflate when the Orion crew module splashes down to keep the capsule from floating nose down in the ocean.
To make the target easier to find, a Jetski circled the target floats.
Once the jumpers hit the water they manned their boats, approached the target and inflated and deployed the front porch. Goddard and Maney observed and evaluated each mission.
For the 103rd Rescue Squadron Airmen, the mission in Hawaii was a return to manned spaceflight support missions like those the 106th Rescue Wing conducted during the years NASA flew the Space Shuttle.
The New York Air Guardsmen provided on call rescue support during 109 Space Shuttle launches from the Kennedy Space Center.
‘It's great to be here making history, with NASA returning to the manned space program," said Lt. Col. Kerry McCauley, the commander of the 103rd Rescue Squadron.
"We are excited to be part of it, to build the tactics, techniques and procedures that are going to return us to manned spaceflight personnel rescue in the future,' McCauley added.
Maj. Sean Boughal, of the 103rd Rescue Squadron, saw the opportunity for the pararescuemen to turn their scheduled Sentry Aloha training into a joint training opportunity with NASA, the Human Spaceflight Office and the 88th.
This was a great way to accomplish already scheduled training and at the same time take first steps in building relationships with NASA and the Human Spaceflight Office, Boughal said.
But it's not just NASA's Orion spacecraft that could require help from Air Force pararescue teams.
Both Boeing and the SpaceX company are developing their own, commercially launched space vehicles. The hope is that the equipment tested in Hawaii could be used to support those space vehicles as well, said Major Christopher Slauson, the Chief of the Human Space Flight Support Office's commercial crew division.
"We're practicing worldwide contingency rescue… what we're doing right now is building blocks not only for commercial crew but for any human spaceflight program that requires worldwide contingency rescue," he said.
Air Force pararescue teams have been involved in spacecraft rescue since the early days of the Mercury program starting in 1958, Maney said. Pararescue jumpers are trained in survival, medical procedures and even infiltration so they had the skills needed to rescue an astronaut.
In March 1966 the Air Force pararescuemen were called into action when the Gemini 8 spacecraft, piloted by moonwalker Neil Armstrong, experienced a critical failure and had to make an emergency reentry near Okinawa. The original recovery zone was in the Atlantic.
Three pararescuemen jumped into the ocean from a C-54 just after the spacecraft splashed down, affixed a floatation collar and stayed with the two astronauts on board Gemini 8 until a Navy ship arrived.
The fact that astronauts may have to land in the open ocean and not where planned, is what required the Human Spaceflight Support Office and 88th Test and Evaluation Squadron to get NASA and pararescuemen involved in the testing and evaluation process Goddard said.
"The key thing I am looking to get from this operation, from the New York Air National Guard, is their expertise in rescue in open water environment," Goddard said. "NASA doesn't currently have a lot of that expertise."
He wanted the pararescuemen to work with the prototype equipment so he can take their suggestions and incorporate them into them into the final design of the gear, Goddard added.
"So when they get the real hardware, on the actual day, it's the hardware they've helped develop, they've tested and they've practiced on, "Goddard said.
(Capt. Michael O'Hagan is with the 106th Rescue Wing and Eric Durr is with the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs)