Suiting Up for Safety
It's often said that to be the best you have to be ready for the worst. On March 15, NASA put this adage into practice when the Space Shuttle Program conducted a landing mishap exercise to train emergency crews to respond quickly and safely. For myself and six other employees, the simulation was a rare chance to serve as an astronaut by portraying the space shuttle crew involved in the landing.
Image to right: Jeremy Garcia is strapped into the commander's seat inside the model cockpit. Credit: NASA/George Shelton
I was super excited at my chance to be an astronaut for a day, but had to wonder just what sort of situation I'd gotten myself into.
The simulated crisis was a fire aboard shuttle Discovery's cockpit after landing at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. It's a situation no shuttle mission has ever had the misfortune of facing, but NASA made the event as realistic as possible by using nearly all of the usual runway equipment, staffing control rooms and even adhering to the weather rules used for an actual landing.
To authentically look the part, we were fitted with the recognizable orange flight and entry suits that astronauts wear.
Each suit weighs more than 50 pounds and made us waddle under their weight as we moved around. Tom Hoffman, one of my crewmates, said, "This explains why the astronauts walk like they do."
Clipped to a cable on our suits were cue cards identifying the astronaut we were playing and our imaginary injuries. I was labeled Mission Specialist No. 5, a returning International Space Station astronaut who had "gotten sick" inside his helmet and passed out.
Image to left: Emergency rescue personnel gently place an "injured astronaut" onto a stretcher. Credit: NASA/Troy Cryder
Our setting for the simulation was a mock-up of the crew cabin section of a space shuttle. I sat downstairs in the cabin's middeck along with Mission Specialists No. 4 and 1, K.C. Chhipwadia and Debbie Awtonomow.
The rest of the crew was upstairs in the model cockpit. In the commander and pilot seats were Jeremy Garcia and Hoffman. Seated behind them were Frank Wolking and Brian Bateman, Mission Specialists No. 2 and 3.
As the exercise began, we heard heavy trucks and helicopters humming outside. "I see a fire truck coming," called out Hoffman. The exterior of our "shuttle" suddenly was blasted with water. Rescuers wearing heavy black helmets, silver suits and special breathing systems quickly appeared and swung open the model's circular hatch. "Fire's out! Fire's out!" Their "all clear" was the signal to storm the cabin and begin extracting us.
I was supposed to be unconscious, but found it hard to keep from looking around and shivering as adrenalin charged through my body.
While waiting to evacuate me, one of the silver saviors attached an oxygen bottle to my suit to send air rushing into my helmet. Soon I was out of the cabin, strapped into a cage backboard called a "litter" and rushed by truck to an open-air medical clinic stationed near the north end of the runway.
Image to right: A triage team carries a simulation crew member to an awaiting U.S. Air Force helicopter for a flight to the hospital. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
At the clinic, doctors and nurses barked orders and the whooshing of powerful helicopter rotors chattered through the air. A medical team suddenly swarmed around me to assess my condition and treat any possible injuries. Notes on the care I was given were recorded on a piece of tape strapped across my forehead.
Minutes later, Garcia and I were loaded onto a gray U.S. Air Force helicopter for transport to a hospital in the nearby city of Melbourne. While in the air, three military medics wearing green flight suits shifted about the cabin as they monitored our health. About 20 minutes later, our helicopter arrived at Melbourne International Airport. "The simulation's over," hollered one of the medics above the roar of the engines.
Within seconds, our helicopter lifted off to return to Kennedy. On the way back, I noticed my anxious shivering had stopped. At first, I thought it was because the commotion of the simulation was over. But the reality is I felt at ease after seeing how the NASA's emergency teams could be at their best during the worst.
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center