Early in the morning along the east central Florida coast, rescue teams on land, sea and in the air sprang to action. Helicopters were silhouetted against the sky, boats cut through the choppy seas, and military leaders huddled over computer monitors displaying real-time tracking.
The ocean search and rescue was only a drill -- a cooperative effort between NASA and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security -- but the scenario played out like a real space shuttle launch-day emergency. It simulated a situation where a space shuttle crew would need to bail out of their orbiter after liftoff and be rescued from the Atlantic Ocean.
The exercise -- known as Mode VIII -- was made as realistic as possible with complicated medical and communications challenges that would be experienced in a real bail-out situation. The shuttle crew in the drill was made up of real astronauts and volunteers, with each assigned various medical needs during the rescue.
Unlike other such drills in the past, this one concentrated on a launch path that will be used during space shuttle Atlantis' STS-125 Hubble repair mission this fall. After liftoff, the shuttle will head directly eastward out over the Atlantic Ocean instead of curving closer to the coast -- and putting a rescue effort farther out to sea.
This was the fifteenth Mode VIII drill, with the first one conducted almost 20 years ago. The teams involved in this most recent drill were able to sharpen their skills while demonstrating their ability to recover astronauts quickly and provide en route medical care.
While a sea rescue of a shuttle crew is the most complicated, the Mode VIII is just one of several emergency rescue drills conducted regularly at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center