When space shuttle Discovery lifted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center July 26, Airmen on a remote base on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean stood alert in case an emergency forced the shuttle to land before reaching orbit.
Airmen representing different functions from the 712th Air Base Group at Morón Air Base, Spain, assigned to the 38th Combat Support Wing at Sembach, stand by for every shuttle launch in case of a launch contingency.
“More than 80 people representing command and control, security, communications, crash recovery, medical, transportation, airfield operations, safety, and logistics are called up for the alert,” said Master Sgt. Samuel Franklin, Morón’s launch airfield support coordination officer.
“They standby in vehicles lined up next to the flight line, or in their control centers, waiting for NASA to declare a successful launch or for the shuttle commander to designate an emergency landing.”
If there had been an emergency, the shuttle could have landed at the base within 30 to 40 minutes, he said. Otherwise, the group would normally stand down from alert 10 minutes after liftoff.
“When you look at a map, Morón is a prime location for where the shuttle could land,” Sergeant Franklin said, referring to the base being near the ground track of the shuttle launch trajectory, Spain’s prevailing good weather and Morón’s 11,800-foot runway.
Although a Transoceanic Abort Landing has never occurred in 114 launches during the 25-year old shuttle program, Morón frequently exercises this scenario and is the only TAL site with a permanent Air Force presence. According to NASA, the shuttle could not launch without an operational TAL plan.
“The strength of using Morón Air Base as a TAL site is that the team exercises and trains together throughout the year,” said Col. Robert Pecoraro, 712th Air Base Group commander. “When it comes to an actual launch, they are more than ready.”
Training crosses the spectrum from specialized NASA instruction, to briefings on convoy operations, to accessing the runway and mock shuttle, to major exercises involving the local community. With only 150 permanent party military members at the base, a big part of the support comes from nearby Naval Station Rota and the Spanish government.
The team also exercised extensively during the second week of July just prior to the original launch date, said Colonel Pecoraro.
The “train like we fight” approach enabled the support for this historical mission to “look like it was too easy” for the alert team members, Colonel Pecoraro said. “With this fully-committed team, we always stand ready if called.”
Approximately one month before the next shuttle launch, NASA will return to Morón to exercise with the USAFE Airmen and the Rota Navy Medical personnel to maintain the team’s high level of proficiency.