86th Operations Group supports NASA launch

by Capt. Erin Dorrance
Kaiserslautern American

***image1***The Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-118 launched Aug. 7 on the 22nd shuttle flight to the International Space Station. The launch was supported by several 86th Operations Group Airmen.

A 37th Airlift Squadron C-130 and crew flew to Istres, France, along with a 76th Airlift Squadron C-21 crew, to support NASA’s high-visibility launch. Simultaneously, a 38th Airlift Squadron C-130 out of Ramstein flew to Zaragoza Air Base, Spain. As the aircraft and crews flew south, the 496th Air Base Squadron in Morón, Spain, began to ready the base and stand alert in case the shuttle had to abort and make an emergency landing.

“I am always excited by the launches even though our part is sort of out of the limelight,” said Tech. Sgt. Henry Alau, 496th ABS communications flight member, who supported his third launch as the lead radio technician on the alert convoy. “We don’t get to see much and mostly we sit waiting for something to happen that hasn’t so far. But if one recognizes the hazards of spaceflight, then anyone should be proud of our small part in enabling our continued exploration of space.”

Morón Air Base is one of three world-wide transoceanic abort landing sites where special shuttle landing equipment is installed, said Capt. Anthony Chu, 496th ABS airfield operations manager. If an emergency, such as an engine failure occurred during the initial moments of the launch, the shuttle could abort its ascent and maneuver to our TAL site with an emergency landing. 

Just north of Morón Air Base, the C-130 and C-21 crews, supported by 3rd Air Force, prepared to pull alert in Istres. The C-130 crew included aeromedical evacuation personnel from the 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron and 10 pararescue jumpers from Moody Air Force Base, Ga., said Capt. Dan Santoro, 37th AS pilot who supported the NASA launch Aug. 7.

“It was great to learn the pararescue jumpers’ approach to search and rescue operations,” Captain Santoro said. “You become intimately involved with the launch.”

C-130E aircrew members are trained in search and rescue, but are not often tasked to carry out real-world missions in the E-model, he said.

The C-21 crew provided support from Istres as well. The crew flew an astronaut to the surrounding area to monitor the weather and check approach equipment located on Istres Air Base’s airfield, said 1st Lt. Jason Soden, 76th AS pilot who flew on the NASA-support mission. 

All participants from the 86th OG were very appreciative of the opportunity to support the mission.

“During this mission, the commitment to the national space program required a third of our remaining [C-130] aircraft and last unrestricted [plane],” said Maj. Mark August, 37th AS director of operations. “Supporting the transoceanic abort landing sites is critical to shuttle mission success and safety, and we were happy to help.”

The mission was declared a success by NASA even though the 86th OG personnel, pulling alert duty, were never sent into action. However, the experience educated and fascinated several personnel involved.

“It was amazing to listen to the transmitting launch information over the radio,” said Captain Santoro who listened from his C-130 in case they were called upon to launch and conduct a search and rescue operation. “The shuttle’s speed was incredible. At one point they said it was traveling four miles per second and it had not reached its top speed.” 

As long as NASA launches shuttles, the 86th OG will stand by ready to assist and support.