As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration prepares to re-enter the final frontier, U.S. Strategic Command is standing by as the space shuttle returns to flight
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OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. (AFPN) -- Two and a half years have passed since the tragedy of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident brought the nation’s manned space flight program to a grinding halt.
Now, as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration prepares to re-enter the final frontier, U.S. Strategic Command is standing by as the space shuttle returns to flight.
Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on July 26 and travel to the International Space Station to conduct tests and deliver supplies. STRATCOM will provide manned space flight support and contingency support in the event of a mishap such as those that have grounded NASA in the past.
“The Joint Chiefs of Staff have designated STRATCOM as the primary point of contact for all manned spaceflight support,” said Maj. Scott Van Sant, chief of the space surveillance and support branch.
STRATCOM’s global area of responsibility allows its commander, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, to oversee support efforts through the Defense Department manned space flight support office at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. The office delegates responsibility to the other regional combatant commands to ensure manned space flight operations receive support worldwide.
“The shuttle takes off from Kennedy Space Center, which is in (U.S. Northern Command’s) area of responsibility,” Major Van Sant said. “But, it could land anywhere in the world. It’s imperative that a global combatant command has responsibility.”
The manned space flight support office provides NASA with launch, landing and recovery support for the shuttle and its crew, contingency landing site support, payload security, public affairs support, worldwide communications, tracking and data relay, and medical support.
The bulk of the support is contingency planning in preparation for a Challenger or Columbia-type accident, Major Van Sant said.
“We’ve been working on different orders, all of which took months to flesh out all the details,” he said. “As far as the tactical level, where the rubber hits the road, the guys down in the office in conjunction with NORTHCOM and the other (combatant commands) have put in a lot of hours, especially in the last 16 to 18 months.”
Discovery’s flight into space could create many scenarios that would require Defense Department manned space flight support. They have prepared for situations such as complications that could cause the crew to bail out over major bodies of water, loss of shuttle power during takeoff, emergency landing or a shuttle crash, Major Van Sant said.
In the event of any such mishap, General Cartwright will take action, designating the appropriate combatant commander to handle the situation. He or she will coordinate and conduct search, rescue and recovery of astronauts with NASA drawing from resources in their area of responsibility.
The 1986 and 2003 tragedies scarred the space program and gave purpose to the mission of Manned Spaceflight Support, but NASA is now prepared to return to flight.
“We’re going to prove that we can learn from mistakes and move on,” said Bob Tucker, NASA liaison to STRATCOM. “Discovery was the first orbiter to fly after the Columbia accident and it’s now going to be the orbiter that flies the first mission after the Columbia accident.”
Discovery’s seven-person crew will test new hardware and techniques to improve space shuttle safety, as well as deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
“We’re going to prove out a whole series of new safety features that have been done since the (Columbia) accident,” Mr. Tucker said. “We’re (also) going to resupply the (International Space Station), which we’ve been unable to do as robustly as we’d like to do.”