NEWS | Sept. 15, 2021

Astronaut recovery task force conducts airlift exercise

By Staff Sgt. John Linzmeier, 154th Wing Public Affairs - Hawaii Air National Guard

MOFFETT FEDERAL FIELD, Calif. – Airmen with the Hawaii and California Air National Guard enhanced their ability to recover astronauts during search and rescue training out of Moffett Federal Airfield Sept 4-12.

The training is part of a series of contingency exercises held to ensure that splashed down space travelers will receive aid in the event of an unplanned landing deep into the Pacific or Atlantic oceans.

The unique mission set entails the rapid dispatch of a Guardian Angel rescue team and survival equipment delivered by C-17 Globemaster III operators from the 204th Airlift Squadron, based out of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

While primary and secondary scenarios entail the recovery of space capsules from Commercial Crew Providers, the airlift capabilities of the C-17 can deliver aid to sparse destinations of the globe significantly faster than other platforms.

The Globemaster’s application as a rescue platform is a recent adaptation by the Department of Defense. It is exclusively operated by ANG units in Hawaii and Alaska to back up NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Rescue scenarios are tested several times a year to train a growing roster of qualified personnel and develop techniques and procedures.

Members of the California ANG’s 131st Rescue Squadron teamed with the 204th AS to plan and execute a ‘full mission profile’ for this training iteration, culminating in a sequence of major recovery steps from start to finish.

“We’ve built a great relationship with the 131St Rescue Squadron, the resident experts in ocean rescue in the Pacific,” said Lt. Col. Brittan Komine, 204th AS director of operations. “They have a lot of experience gained by performing their state mission of contingency ship and open ocean rescues. These pararescuemen are adept at operating in dynamic environments and need to be ready to encounter every situation. On the flip side, our community is accustomed to deliberate planning. Our support to a downed astronaut will be very dynamic, and we were able to exercise that here.”

Participants dedicated a new academic portion to their rescue curriculum, which incorporated several days of briefings, plans and discussion to prepare responders for all foreseeable outcomes when astronauts travel to space and back to Earth.

Key personnel from NASA’s Human Space flight contingency programs in Johnson Space Center, Texas, attended to help administer the academics, develop best practices and facilitate the full mission profile.

“When we first started, there was really no training curriculum developed; we had to start from scratch,” Lt. Col. Tim Saxton, Detachment 3, 1st Air Force, NASA liaison, “so over the past two years we’ve developed a lot of products they can look at to learn about the mission. It’s good to see how it’s progressing; we’ve definitely come a long way to arrive at this point, and it’s great to see how the C-17 aircrew are growing as a community.”

Members became more familiar with all protocols to relay information to and from the capsule, deconflict aircraft within the airspace, establish command of the scene, harmonize with associated air patrols and coordinate rapid departure plans with the designated Guardian Angel pararescue team.

“During our academic lessons, the ‘crawl phase,’ we instructed different actions on the objective so that in execution, everyone was properly prepared,” said Komine. “Additionally, we were also able to sit down with the 130th Rescue Squadron, who operate the C-130J, to receive some advice on on-scene-commander operations. The OSC role is a new undertaking for our squadron but largely important for this mission. You’re basically running the show; talking to the astronaut, managing the other assets and relaying back to ‘C2’ (command and control). It’s exciting to take on that responsibility.”

In addition to streamlining the proficiencies of the rescue crew, personnel from the 154th Logistics Readiness Squadron are gaining new career field aptitudes in support of the rescue mission.

Air transportation Airmen provide a mission-critical role in rigging and inspecting several tons of rescue equipment onto the aircraft, ensuring that enough medical supplies, sustenance and rescue craft can sustain the lives of drifting astronauts for multiple days while adrift at sea.

While air transportation Guardsmen at JBPH-H traditionally support fighter operations at their home station, they are becoming qualified for routine airdrops.

“I feel that with this new skill set that we are developing, we’re adding more value to our unit and more capabilities, which can be applied to this NASA mission and has the potential to be used in all kinds of scenarios,” said Tech. Sgt. Dennis Dedicatoria, 154th LRS air transportation NCO in charge. “This gives us the means to become self-sustainable, rather than relying on the availability of external agencies every time.”

Airmen from California and Hawaii topped off their week of subject matter expert exchanges with back-to-back scenarios entailing a staged astronaut crew adrift in Santa Cruz Drop Zone, postured to be retrieved by the fully loaded C-17 package with Guardian Angel members.

The training was geared to validate overall rescue competencies for a national tasking. Exercise planners made the most out of each flying opportunity to check off annual training requirements for participating members, making for a cost-effective operation.

The Hawaii aircrew used its proximity to mainland units to support additional training airdrops with U.S. Navy SEALs and pararescuemen in Southern California several days before the full mission profile.

Since the CCP resumed human space flights on U.S. soil in May 2020, aircrew members from 204th Airlift Squadron have stood on alert as astronauts made their way to and from the International Space Station, with plans to continue their role for years to come.