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Rescuers Respond to Mock Shuttle Disaster
02.20.04
 
A crew member is pulled to safety through the top hatch of the orbiter crew compartment mock-up.When it comes to launching and landing Space Shuttles, NASA and the U.S. Air Force expect the best. But they also know the importance of preparing for the worst. They put themselves to the test Feb. 18 when they rescued seven injured "astronauts" from a Shuttle orbiter that landed short of its runway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

A crew member is pulled to safety through the top hatch of the orbiter crew compartment mock-up during a recent Shuttle emergency drill.

Fortunately, it was just a simulation. The astronauts were healthy volunteers and the orbiter was only a life-sized mockup of the crew compartment. But the situation was real enough to the Air Force and KSC para-rescuers tasked with saving the crew. Called a "Mode VII,"; the exercise is meant to give NASA and the Department of Defense hands-on experience in responding to Shuttle emergencies.

"It's an annual training event," explained astronaut Butch Wilmore, who attended the simulation. "We try to do them as realistically as we possibly can, using the people who would really be called on if this situation ever came to pass."

Emergency personnel and landing team members were readying for landing when Landing and Recovery Director Robert Holl declared the emergency: The orbiter came down south of the Shuttle Landing Facility.

Silver-suited emergency personnel tend to a crewSilver-suited emergency personnel tend to a crew member.

NASA's fire-rescue helicopter began a search from the air and spotted the crash site in an area full of small ponds and thick shrubs. Four Air Force search-and-rescue helicopters nicknamed "Jolly Green Giants," arrived next. Normally based at nearby Patrick Air Force Base, the "Jollies" are always present at KSC for Shuttle launches and landings.

Before sending rescuers into the orbiter, emergency personnel had to assess the situation. Was the orbiter on land or in water? Where could the rescue helicopters land? Weather, especially wind speed and direction, is another consideration. Shuttle systems contain hazardous chemicals, so it's important for rescue forces to know exactly where any harmful plumes may form.

One by one, the Air Force helicopters landed and deployed teams of para-rescuers. Wearing gas masks and silver suits for protection, the rescue team entered the crew compartment through the top hatch. Some crew members were evacuated that way; others were carried out the side hatch.

"Main access was through the top, then we opened the side hatch from the inside," said Norb Kuhman, fire chief and rescue operations commander with Space Gateway Services. "We were just making sure we exercised both elements."

A rescue team carries a crew member toward the helicopter for transportation to a local hospital.A rescue team carries a crew member toward the helicopter for transportation to a local hospital.

The crew members were taken by helicopter or M-113 armored personnel carrier to a nearby emergency treatment area. They were then taken by ambulance or helicopter to Central Florida hospitals participating in the drill.

Only forty-three minutes elapsed from the time the emergency was declared until all crew members were rescued from the orbiter. Lt. Col. John Bickett, commander of Department of Defense Management for Space Shuttle Support, said that the first hour after an emergency is a critical time. He was pleased by the rescue teams' quick response.

"They did great," Bickett said. "But we're going to see what we did as planned, and what could be done even better."

 
 
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center