JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii – It’s Nov. 13, two days before a historic rocket launch, and a helicopter pilot approaches a cargo jet on a clear morning at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. He is carrying a black box and surrounded by movement; truckloads of rescue crafts and personnel are loaded onto the airframe, prepping the jet to save astronauts in the event of a premature water landing.
U.S. Space Force Capt. Richard Burges, an HH-60 Pave Hawk pilot, steps onto the C-17 Globemaster III, cracks open the case and connects an apparatus to a side-panel near the door. This roll-on equipment adds the search and rescue capability to the C-17, which was not intended for the aircraft’s original design.
The Lightweight Airborne Radio System (LARS) is a communication device built into modern rescue airframes such as the HH-60. In the same way that rescue Airmen use the radio to locate and recover personnel in denied territory, the externally set up LARS is now ready to help the Hawaii Air National Guard aircrew search for and rescue a downed capsule in the event of an emergency anywhere in the Pacific.
This event is the first of its kind, with NASA sending a full crew of astronauts to the International Space Station on a SpaceX designed vehicle as part of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).
“We’re here to represent the Human Space Flight Support Detachment and to integrate with the Hawaii Air National Guard,” said Burges, Task Force 45 Support Operations Center training officer and military liaison. “When NASA stands up a human space flight program, they request support from the DOD (Department of Defense). They’ve been doing it since we first started in the 1950s. They request support to help recover and rescue astronauts if they need any help. From Gemini, Apollo, all the way to now, and when we’re going back to the moon, it’s the DOD who’s going to rescue the astronauts.”
As dozens of Airmen secure an assortment of rescue vehicles to the jet, another aircrew from the same unit, the 204th Airlift Squadron, is outfitted with the same setup in Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina. In the event of an unplanned splashdown within the Atlantic half-of-the-globe, the Charleston team is prepared to recover the crew.
“If you would have told me five or six years ago that this is something we would be supporting, I would’ve been really surprised,” said Lt. Col. Britton Komine, 204th AS aircraft commander for the South Carolina rescue crew. “We’re the first to operate this way, as a rescue platform. It’s just a highly unique skill set that we’re happy to bring to the mission.”
Should things go according to plan, as they did throughout the manned test mission conducted from May to August this year, the crew of four astronauts will complete their mission in orbit and be recovered by the commercial organizations, leaving the airlift Airmen on standby status throughout the atmospheric departure and reentry.
Like the aviation field, space travel requires an array of redundant systems and contingency plans, which is why rescue personnel prepare as though they will be needed during each space flight.
“The first step in any of those contingency rescue scenarios is for us to find the capsule,” said Burges. “There’s telemetry systems inside each capsule that goes from the satellites to NASA to our operations center and back to us. A lot of things could fail in that chain of reporting, so if for some reason they don’t receive an acceptable fidelity of coordinates, we have an onboard system that helps us locate the capsule.”
Unlike other C-17s in the Air Force fleet, LARS-enabled jets can communicate with a survival beacon independently when it reaches radio range. This feature, along with enhanced rescue training, is paramount, particularly when spotting a small, white capsule in a sea of waves and splashing whitecaps.
Whenever the rescue team is called on, Burgess or another radio operator will embed with the HIANG aircrew to offer a specialized set of rescue techniques to maximize the probability of finding an object in the ocean.
“Working with the HIANG has been fantastic,” said Burgess. “They’re fearless and some of the most professional aviators I’ve encountered. I have no doubt that they are more than capable because they are putting in a ton of work, asking smart questions and incredibly passionate about making this mission as successful as can be.”
Upon locating the drifting capsule, the Globemaster III would airdrop a set of rescue craft followed by a medically trained pararescue team, such as members from the 38th and 58th Rescue Squadron staged in Hawaii and South Carolina. The renowned jump team is known in the rescue community as the Guardian Angels.
Contingency rescues have not been necessary since the CCP started human space travel this year, but each component of the rescue operation has been exercised the past several years.
While members of the 204th AS continue to provide alternate extraction measures for passengers of the CCP, the squadron will assume the same responsibilities for further NASA endeavors alongside the 144th Airlift Squadron, based out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
When NASA’s Artemis Program begins astronaut launches later this decade, recovery operations will be spearheaded by DOD agencies, with the U.S. Navy staged for the primary retrieval and Air National Guard squadrons prepared for alternate landing scenarios.
This contingency operation was made possible by the Air Force’s Total Force Initiative, in which active-duty personnel, such as Airmen from the 15th Wing and Air Mobility Command, continue to work alongside Air National Guard service members to maximize mission effectiveness.