Airmen support NASA’s final shuttle launch

by Tech. Sgt. Chenzira Mallory
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

ZARAGOZA AIR BASE, Spain  ― Airmen from U.S. Air Forces in Europe provided support at the Transoceanic Abort Landing Site in Zaragoza, Spain, as NASA concluded its shuttle program with the successful launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis July 8.

The TAL serves as a safe haven, in the event something goes wrong during the shuttle’s assent. The TAL is equipped with a long enough runway, emergency crews on stand-by and specialized communication equipment.

The Zaragoza TAL is one of three primary abort landing sites within USAFE. Airmen deploy to TALs to augment teams comprised of NASA, Spanish Air Force and other Department of Defense personnel.

Within four to five days of each shuttle launch, Airmen provide support consisting of weather observers, firefighters, medics, communicators, para-jumpers and aircrew. During this time they prepare by participating in simulated shuttle landing exercises while running tests on all their gear.

On launch day, they stand by ready to support if needed. Master Sgt. Armando Avila of the 886th Civil Engineer Squadron’s fire department plays a vital role during these TAL missions.

“My job is to provide crash and fire rescue; to basically go in and rescue the astronauts if needed,” Avila said. Other members prepared the C-130J and C-21 aircraft in case search and recovery assets are needed away from the base.

Staff Sgt. Ruben Rodriguez, 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief, ensured there aren’t any delays in getting the para-jumpers where they need to be in the event of a landing. “I ensure the aircraft is inspected, fueled, and maintained, prior to each shuttle launch,” Rodriguez said.

This was the 135th shuttle mission Airmen deployed to support over the past 30 years. For some Airmen this was their first time supporting this mission.
“I feel privileged to be a part of this event,” said Rodriguez. “It’s not something you get to do every day. This is something you only see on TV.” The day of the launch, weather observers released meteorology balloons to ensure the conditions were safe for the shuttle to land.

The para-jumpers and medical personnel gathered and ops-checked all of their rescue equipment. Everyone worked within their own unique role preparing for the unthinkable to occur.

As the shuttle lifted off, the teams at the TAL gathered their gear and crowded around TVs to monitor the activities at the Kennedy Space Center. Being a part of this event held different meanings for everyone in attendance, including Senior Airman Calvin-Klein Freeman, 86th Operations Support Squadron loadmaster.
“It’s been a cool experience,” said Freeman. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut and today I feel like an honorary NASA member.”