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HIANG unit posture for astronaut recovery during historic launch

U.S. Air Force Airmen, assigned to the Hawaii Air National Guard, load pararescuemen equipment onto a C-17 Globemaster III, May 26, 2020 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The Airmen pre-rigged the C-17 in order to be able to quickly respond to astronaut rescue in the Pacific region in support of a manned space flight launch on May 30. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Orlando Corpuz)

U.S. Air Force Airmen, assigned to the Hawaii Air National Guard, load pararescuemen equipment onto a C-17 Globemaster III, May 26, 2020 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The Airmen pre-rigged the C-17 in order to be able to quickly respond to astronaut rescue in the Pacific region in support of a manned space flight launch on May 30. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Orlando Corpuz)

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- The historic launch of two American astronauts from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was a partnership involving NASA, SpaceX and Boeing. The National Guard also played a key role that will continue.

Hawaii Air National Guard (HIANG) Airmen were on high alert May 30 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, prepared to rescue the astronauts should anything go wrong.

Aircrew and a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to the 204th Airlift Squadron along with a contingent of Air Force “Guardian Angel” pararescuemen from Nellis Air Force Base stood by on the flight line, ready to launch should astronaut recovery be needed in the Pacific during the spacecraft’s 19-hour journey to the International Space Station.

Airmen and agencies from the active-duty 15th Wing and the Hawaii Air National Guard 154th Wing provided mission and logistics support.

“We’re just really happy to support,” said Lt. Col. Jon Ma, 204th Airlift Squadron commander. “It took years of development and training to get to this point where we’re ready to execute and support if needed.”

The launch was the fruit of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) through a partnership with SpaceX and Boeing.

After the space shuttle program halted in 2011, the U.S. outsourced space travel to the Russian space program with its Soyuz rockets to deliver astronauts into space, an endeavor with high financial costs. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program aims to facilitate the development of commercially provided space transport that is not only safe and reliable but cost-effective for the U.S.

Department of Defense support for the program came in the form of Contingency Astronaut Rescue, a multilayered rescue concept involving the deployment of military rescue personnel on either fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft depending on a given scenario.

Global reach capability of the C-17 was a driving factor in its selection as a rescue delivery platform. The HIANG aircrews trained extensively on the specialized tactics and procedures needed to execute any potential rescue mission.

“We provide the rescue network with the C-17,” said Lt. Col. Anthony Davis, 154th Operations Group deputy commander. “It really is an historic event, and for the Hawaii Air National Guard to be one of the select few to be able to carry out this mission speaks volumes to our capabilities and our Airmen alike.”

The 204th AS is one of two squadrons in the nation specially trained and certified to execute the C-17 portion of NASA’s astronaut rescue. Together with the Alaska Air National Guard’s 144th Airlift Squadron, which staged on the East Coast of the U.S., the two units provided a global blanket for contingency rescue operations.

May’s launch marked the first time NASA astronauts launched from American shores in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft. For the 204th AS, it marked a return to its rescue roots since transitioning to the C-17 in 2005.

“We have our beginnings in rescue missions back when we operated the C-130 Hercules aircraft,” Anthony said,” so rescue was a primary and venerable mission for us. It’s an exciting moment to be able to return to such a meaningful mission.”

Contingency Astronaut Rescue requires a C-17 and a contingent of rescue operators to be airborne within minutes of being alerted. The aircraft was pre-rigged and loaded with specialized rescue equipment. The Globemaster III aircraft was fueled and configured for quick launch while the aircrew and Guardian Angel team, from the 58th Rescue Squadron, stood by near the aircraft.

If the rescuers were alerted, the jet and its rescue operators were airborne within minutes. Once onsite, the aircrew would employ rescue flying tactics and procedures to airdrop the pararescuemen down to the astronauts.

The rescue alert period, from pre-launch to ISS docking, was less than 24-hours. However, the planning and development was years-in-the-making for the HIANG and its partner operators, including the Alaska ANG. The DOD orders to provide rescue support were received in 2014 and progressed through numerous development and training phases.

“To be a part of this historic event, it really is exciting and makes all the hard work that everybody put in worthwhile.” Ma said.

With the pending return of the astronauts as well as future manned space launches, the 204th continues to train and evolve to be able to meet mission requirements.

“We’ll be ready to support all future CCP launches and landing alert windows as this program continues to be developed by SpaceX and Boeing in conjunction with NASA,” Ma said. “We plan to be the go-to unit for NASA’s global contingency rescue in support of the United States’ human space flight.”

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