Space Force’s Guardian Angels: The crack squad that keeps astronauts alive if things go wrong

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida When Space Force’s future first astronaut, U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Hopkins stepped onto the SpaceX capsule for Crew 1 liftoff Sunday, 21 of Space Force’s “Guardian Angels” were at the ready to rescue him should he need to abort and splashdown anywhere on earth.

“The dudes jump out of the aircraft in the middle of the ocean,” Joint Operations Center Director Air Force Lieut. Col. David Mahan told the Washington Examiner in describing a potential emergency scenario.

“There aren’t ships posted around waiting for them because it’s a global mission, and we don’t know where it could come down,” Mahan said in an interview at Space Force’s 45th Space Wing headquarters at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The elite group of pararescuemen and combat rescue officers, known as Task Force 45, Detachment 3, support all of NASA’s human space missions.

When not on the ready to save astronauts, the elite group is deployed to rescue downed pilots in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The dudes jump out of the aircraft in the middle of the ocean,” Joint Operations Center Director Air Force Lieut. Col. David Mahan told the Washington Examiner in describing a potential emergency scenario to rescue astronauts using hard duck boats parachuted from C-130 aircraft.

(Abraham Mahshie / Washington Examiner)

For the Cape Canaveral mission, about 70 service members were on alert in Florida with two C-130s and three HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters on standby.

Additional service members at Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina and Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii were ready to take off within 15 minutes of an incident that could lead to a splashdown along the 51.6-degree orbital inclination of the International Space Station North or South, anywhere on the globe.

“Just think a survival raft on steroids,” said Mahan, describing the hard duck inflatable rubber boats that would be parachuted out of a C-130 near the capsule’s splash zone.

Each C-130 can fit a deflated boat in the shape of a giant block, one fully inflated boat, and a souped-up Yamaha watercraft outfitted with GPS and capable of towing the space capsule at high sea.

Each boat is equipped with advanced paramedic and rescue gear, scuba gear, and hazardous gas detection equipment.

The Guardian Angels separately parachute to the equipment once it hits the water.

Although a rescue unit has been around as long as manned spaceflight, modern commercial space travel has required a lot of new thinking.

“That was kind of a crash course. None of us came in here trained,” said Mahan of the thinking in 2017 that went into designing a rescue operation.

“Anytime there’s a major mechanical movement there’s always a risk of something going wrong during that phase,” he said. “Then, once there’s orbital insertion, and it’s up in space, there’s different types of burns transfer, things to get them higher and higher to get closer to ISS.”

For 28.5 hours at the operations center at nearby Patrick Air Force base, Mahan and mission coordinator Air Force Maj. Joseph Waechter stared at six giant screens studying each segment of the voyage.

OPs Center DET 3.jpg
DET-3 mission directors observe human space missions at Patrick Air Force base on six giant screens, where they can study each segment of the voyage and evaluate risk factors for a potential rescue.

Photo courtesy 45th Space Wing

“We have access to all of the communication loops that that NASA works on,” said Waechter, who would take an emergency response order from Mahan and communicate directly to C-130s waiting on the tarmac with engines running.

“If there’s something that potentially happens, we were tied in immediately and can know pretty much as soon as something happens if we need to start working on a contingency rescue,” he said.

There are a series of scenarios that could take place. Prior to liftoff, a malfunction on the rockets could require the capsule to “eject” and splashdown in the ocean in order to save the astronauts from a launchpad explosion.

Once in the air, if something goes wrong, the capsule can detach from the rockets and parachute into the sea. While space rescue is not possible, if a problem arises while the capsule is jetting toward the International Space Station, it can change course and reenter the earth’s atmosphere, dropping into an ocean for rescue.

“Our goal is to have people already moving in that direction before they even exit the aircraft,” said Mahan.

The Guardian Angels separately parachute out to the boats, inflate those requiring inflation, and move to the capsule.

Once the Angels reach the astronauts, both have practiced egress from the capsule, which could be surrounded by noxious gases. Once on the boats, a surgeon at Patrick can guide the medical response. The team can survive on the floats for up to 72 hours until helicopters or Naval or Coast Guard vessels can reach them.

The Guardian Angels are on the hook for rescue up until the moment the SpaceX capsule docks with the ISS. Then they disappear, returning to global rescue missions until the next human launch or three to four yearly training exercises.

Task Force 45, Detachment 3 (DET-3) is an elite group of pararescuemen and combat rescue officers operating under Space Force in support of all NASA’s human space missions.

Photo by Abraham Mahshie/ Washington Examiner

The modern space capsules are also more survivable than the space shuttle was, Mahan said he learned from Christmas party discussions with old shuttle rescue operators.

SpaceX conducted in an-flight abort test in January, exploding a Falcon 9 rocket in midair just to watch the capsule automatically eject, parachute, and land safely in the ocean. The Guardian Angels were there in a simulated response to the unmanned capsule.

“It’s one of those things you’ve trained for so long, but you don’t want to actually ever do it because, if you do it, there’s a risk that things won’t go well,” Mahan said. “We’re always there just in case, and we will always execute.”

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