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Expanding The Mission To Astronaut Recovery Efforts
by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Tenley Long
March 27, 2020

Nearly 50 years ago, astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins made the journey back from the moon onboard Apollo 11. The men passed into Earth’s atmosphere and made a splash landing in the Pacific Ocean. This was the end of the astronauts’ journey, but it was only the beginning for rescue and recovery teams.

Detachment 3, of the 45th Operations Group, is responsible for coordinating astronaut rescue and recovery support for our nation’s human space flight programs. This unique mission requires careful planning and coordination between NASA, the Department of Defense and other supporting agencies.

“Search and recovery operations are really important,” said Maj. Adrian Gonzales, assistant director of operations for Air Mobility Command Test and Evaluation Squadron, and C-17 Globemaster III instructor pilot. “It’s a peace of mind for the astronauts who will be going into the capsule and potentially putting their lives on the line in order to continue space exploration. In the event that they do have to abort the mission, or land in the ocean – for whatever reason – they know the Air Force is there to make an expedited recovery of the team.”

Currently, this mission is accomplished using aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules and various helicopters, but the Air Force is continuously looking to improve processes, procedures and expand capabilities.

In efforts to see if Det. 3’s mission could be improved, AMCTES conducted an assessment to see if the C-17 was suitable for assisting in astronaut recovery efforts.

“After takeoff the crew will fly approximately 40 miles southeast to the drop zone,” said Gonzales. “Once they become established and comfortable with the procedures for the air drop of the illumination flares and position marker, we’ll then go through and actually deploy the flares from the ramp of the C-17. From there we’ll collect data from a test perspective. Confirming if the flares are exiting the aircraft safely will be the biggest take away, as well as identifying any safety issues we might have with the actual techniques and procedures.”

Tech. Sgt. Seth Dunworth, 15th Airlift Squadron loadmaster, deploys an illumination flare from the ramp of the aircraft during Air Mobility Command Test and Evaluation Squadron’s assessment of tactics, techniques and procedures for astronaut rescue and recovery efforts Jan. 22, 2020, off the coast of Florida near Patrick Air Force Base. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photos by Staff Sgt. Tenley Long)
Tech. Sgt. Seth Dunworth, 15th Airlift Squadron loadmaster, deploys an illumination flare from the ramp of the aircraft during Air Mobility Command Test and Evaluation Squadron’s assessment of tactics, techniques and procedures for astronaut rescue and recovery efforts Jan. 22, 2020, off the coast of Florida near Patrick Air Force Base. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photos by Staff Sgt. Tenley Long)

Test Directors from AMCTES, located at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, led the test with the support from members of Det. 3. The test participants included C-17 aircrew from Joint Base Charleston, S.C., and Air National Guard members from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

“AMCTES, as an operational test organization, seeks to use operators that are currently employed by active squadrons to be able to get their input,” mentioned Master Sgt. Thomas Litteer, AMCTES senior test director. “By doing this we get a better picture of how the current warfighter would benefit from the test we’re using, as well as a much better unbiased opinion of what we evaluate.”

“This test is actually really amazing to be a part of,” said Capt. Jason Dorn, 15th Airlift Squadron instructor pilot and aircraft commander for the mission. “Understanding who exactly we are helping is NASA astronauts – It’s kind of a kid’s dream to be helping astronauts fly to space and safely return. The C-17 provides a great opportunity to help with that recovery, although the 437th may not directly help with that recovery, what we’ve accomplished in the test will help the units be prepared for when the time comes and they’re required to help astronauts return safely from space.”

Although the results of this test will not be available until after the appropriate parties review it, the C-17 remains an important asset to the Air Force and Department of Defense. It’s the most flexible cargo aircraft to enter the airlift force.

The potential capabilities as a result of this test mission would allow a C-17 can arrive at an objective location faster and stay there longer, while additionally being able to provide follow on air drop assets from the Guardian Angels, personnel recovery specialist. If the results of the test were proven successful, rescue and recovery efforts could expand.

“We’re checking the suitability of the tactics, techniques and procedures to deploy the illumination flares and markers from the ramp of a C-17,” explained Gonzales. “We’re looking to confirm that it’s suitable for crewmembers to go out and execute. That’s our desired end state. When it comes to any short comings, I’m confident that the crew will be able to identify those and adapt to the situation in a safe manner and continue with the mission.”

Master Sgt. Randall Yamada, a loadmaster with the 204th Airlift Squadron, deploys a position marker from the ramp of a C-17 Globemaster III from Joint Base Charleston during Air Mobility Command Test and Evaluation Squadron’s assessment of tactics, techniques and procedures for astronaut rescue and recovery efforts Jan. 22, 2020, off the coast of Florida near Patrick Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tenley Long)
Master Sgt. Randall Yamada, a loadmaster with the 204th Airlift Squadron, deploys a position marker from the ramp of a C-17 Globemaster III from Joint Base Charleston during Air Mobility Command Test and Evaluation Squadron’s assessment of tactics, techniques and procedures for astronaut rescue and recovery efforts Jan. 22, 2020, off the coast of Florida near Patrick Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tenley Long)

Once completed, participants shared feedback from the mission to provide Air Force leaders a finalized test report, enabling them to make an informed decision on whether or not the C-17 could be used in this capacity.

“What I think the test and evaluation squadron is going to look at is how we as a crew came together to employ those tactics, techniques and procedures, because it takes a lot of coordination between our pilots in the front, and our loadmasters in the back,” described Dorn. “I think what really matters is why this change has been driven. In the past when we had the Apollo mission, the entire nation was fully focused on that, and we had an aircraft carrier picking up our astronauts when they returned. The assets we have tasked today might not necessarily have the flight distance and loiter time required to conduct this type of mission. The C-17 could provide a lot of additional capabilities to extend the mission out for longer periods, over further distances, and with more rescue equipment and Airmen to support those astronauts.”

Although the C-17 has not been confirmed to utilize the capability, the efforts made to conduct the training shows the military’s drive for improvement and process betterment.

“Technology is everchanging, and the Air Force moves along with it,” Litteer said. “If we have the capability to make something better and improve, why wouldn’t we better utilize that in the upcoming years? The detachment at Patrick Air Force Base is primarily responsible for human space flight support, and they could ultimately be affected by this potential change.”

If successful, the C-17 could join in supporting bringing astronauts home, causing one less problem for Houston.

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