PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Florida — They’ve rescued civilians in the mountains of Afghanistan, evacuated the American embassy in South Sudan, and gone into combat zones to save their fellow service members.
Now, members of the Air Force Reserve’s 920th Rescue Wing here are gearing up for their first human spaceflight support mission in almost a decade.
They have roughly nine months to perfect a strategy to mobilize to a U.S. space capsule in time to retrieve the astronauts aboard.
Members from the wing, which includes the 308th Rescue Squadron — one of the Air Force’s “Guardian Angels” personnel recovery units, will stay on alert for space launches and landings anywhere in the world.
“Our guys are starting to train to that mission that we haven’t done in over seven years,” said Col. Mike LoForti, commander of the 920th Operations Group. Military.com toured hangars and facilities used for the combat-search-and-rescue mission and spoke with officials about the 920th’s evolving operations.
LoForti said the 920th has “a lot of history behind” space missions, even as a traditional CSAR unit. The wing’s last manned mission was the Space Transportation System 135: NASA’s 135th shuttle flight in 2011.
As part of NASA’s return to a human spaceflight program, Boeing Co. and California-based SpaceX have set their sights on two launches by the end of 2018.
Airmen currently support launches from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, as well as submarine-launched ballistic missile test launches on the East Coast. HH-60G Pave Hawks clear the ranges to make sure civilians are out of the area when debris comes crashing down to earth.
A number of test launches are expected, LoForti said. Space and missile centers anticipate a ramp up to 30 to 40 test launches annually within the next few years, and the 920th is expected to be ready.
“We want to support that mission, but we also have to be leery of, ‘That’s not our primary mission,’ ” LoForti said. “Space is going to grow here very rapidly.”
The emphasis is on the manned mission. Should a catastrophic event happen, CSAR will be there.
“We’ve got helicopters sitting alert, we’ve got Guardian Angels sitting alert, and we’ve got the HC-130 [extended-range transports] sitting alert. We’ve got C-17 [Globemaster IIIs] also involved. So this isn’t just us — this is a worldwide support mission,” LoForti said.
“This is what they call the second Renaissance of the space program — we haven’t seen this kind of resurgence of the program since the manned Apollo [or] Gemini,” he said, referring to the 1960s space missions.