By Air Force Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo, Special to American Forces Press Service
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Eight pararescuemen aboard "King 2," an HC-130 Hercules from the New York Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing, breathed a collective sigh of relief as the space shuttle Atlantis, traveling more than 3,000 miles an hour, reached orbit yesterday for NASA's final visit to refurbish and restore the Hubble Space Telescope.
It was the 100th time airmen from the Long Island-based rescue wing have watched a space shuttle climb into orbit as they stood by to rescue the crew in case something went wrong.
The New York Air National Guardsmen have had this mission since December 1988, when NASA conducted the first shuttle missions after the 1986 Challenger disaster.
"Every member of the 106th Rescue Wing is proud of this mission," Air Force Col. Michael Canders, the 106th's commander, said. "Our unit has played a critical role in the exploration of space for the last 20 years, and we look forward to continuing to support this effort."
The highly trained rescue crew eagerly awaited Atlantis' lift-off here, where they remained alert and prepared to retrieve shuttle astronauts if the shuttle failed to reach orbit. If that had happened, the seven-member Atlantis crew would have used an escape hatch to bail out into the Atlantic.
While "King 2" stood ready at Patrick Air Force Base, a short distance from Kennedy Space Center, a second HC-130, "King 1," orbited the eastern seacoast, prepared to rush to the projected impact area or splash point, if necessary.
Air Guardsmen from the unit, based at Gabreski Field Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., routinely practice this contingency procedure, known as Mode 8 Egress, which is, essentially, a parachute descent to safety.
If an ejection had taken place, the shuttle crew would have been spread out roughly a mile apart, given the speed of the shuttle as the astronauts bailed out. Once the astronauts were located, the pararescuemen would deploy in two teams via parachute, along with a Zodiac inflatable boat, to retrieve the astronauts, Canders said.
"I am always grateful for the outstanding job the 106th Rescue Wing does for NASA's shuttle launches," Mike Leinbach, the NASA launch director, said. "They are a critical part of our overall launch contingency planning, and I am absolutely certain that if called on, they would perform their job in a flawless manner."
Knowing the pararescuemen are close by is important, said Air Force Col. Lee Archambault, who commanded a shuttle mission in March and flew on another in 2007.
"Because of the amount and level of egress training and rescue procedures we receive, we know we are well taken care of should we need to get out of the vehicle if the worst of the worst happens," Archambault said. "We very much appreciate the support of the 106th Rescue Wing and all the rescue personnel on station throughout the world. Without [their] support, we couldn't do what we do."
After the Challenger disaster, the shuttle was redesigned to include an escape hatch, which allows crewmembers to leave the spacecraft in an emergency. Rescue crews were then needed to locate those downed crewmembers and pluck them from the waters off Cape Canaveral. The 106th Rescue Wing volunteered for the mission, developed and validated the astronaut search and rescue procedures, and has been there for nearly every shuttle mission since, Air Force Col. Robert Landsiedel, the wing's vice commander, said.
"Although we're ready, we're relieved we don't have to rescue the astronauts," said Lt. Col. Jim Kelley, 106th navigator and King 2 mission commander, responsible for controlling the rescue package and helicopter refueling plan for this mission. "It's a mission you train for and hope you never have to execute."