The U.S. military’s rescue units have supported NASA for six decades but now for the first time astronauts are flying in commercial capsules.
WASHINGTON — Three hours before the SpaceX Crew Dragon launch May 30, teams of combat rescue specialists staged at military bases in Florida, South Carolina and Hawaii went on alert status in the event of a mission abort.
The task force of about 150 personnel and eight aircraft is under the command of the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. It is deployed to ensure that if astronauts abort the mission, they are recovered anywhere in the world where they might land.
The U.S. military’s rescue units have supported NASA operations for six decades but this is a “new era” because astronauts are flying in commercial capsules and each requires different procedures and training, said Maj. Gen. John Shaw, commander of the Combined Force Space Component of U.S. Space Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
“We are supporting three capsules,” Shaw said June 1 during a SpaceNews online event. In addition to SpaceX Crew Dragon, troops are training to rescue astronauts from Boeing’s Starliner and Lockheed Martin’s Orion capsules.
“We had our first Starliner exercise in April,” said Lt. Col. Michael Thompson, the commander of the 45th Operations Group’s Detachment 3, the unit that oversees the training for the rescue missions. The detachment has about 30 full-time staff. For training and for actual missions, it is augmented by Air Force combat search and rescue units.
Boeing brought a Starliner test vehicle to Patrick Air Force Base for open ocean rescue training, said Thompson.
“Each of the capsules is unique,” he said. “The way we egress astronauts from Dragon is different than Starliner or Orion.”
During the Apollo era, said Thompson, the military deployed almost 6,000 personnel, 24 aircraft and seven naval vessels for astronaut rescue.
Detachment 3 also supports NASA astronauts when they fly on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing, said Detachment 3 has been training for the Crew Dragon mission for five years.
The task force will be again on alert when Crew Dragon returns to Earth in a few months.
“We have to be prepared as they de-orbit back down,” said Schiess. “Hopefully SpaceX can get the capsule themselves. But again if there was an anomaly our team has to be prepared to be able to execute that rescue.”
For now the Space Force only supports NASA human spaceflight. If and when commercial companies begin to fly tourists to space, someone will have to decide how to handle contingency rescue operations, said Shaw.
“We’ll have to wait and see what happens,” he said. “We’ll see how that evolves and how the government chooses to regulate that.”
“As humans go into space there will be a need to prepare for rescue,” Shaw said. “Someone’s going to have to do that.”
Going forward, he said, “I think it’s very likely that the Department of Defense will be some part of that broader team in the support of human spaceflight program.”
The U.S. Space Force, said Shaw, “is not going to be sending humans into space for national security purposes anytime soon. Maybe a long time from now we’ll be doing that. But we will be supporting any humans that go into space for exploration. We will absolutely be doing that.”