Morón drills for shuttle emergency landing
NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — If disaster strikes aboard a space shuttle shortly after takeoff, astronauts will have people such as Petty Officer 3rd Class James Quinn waiting on the ground.
Quinn is part of a Navy medical team from Rota that travels to Morón Air Base every time a shuttle launches from Florida. Astronauts have 35 minutes from the time the rocket boosters lift an orbiter off the pad to make an emergency landing at the Spanish air base.
The 60-member team held an exercise Thursday in Rota to practice what it would do if a space shuttle had to abort a mission minutes after takeoff.
During the drill, Quinn barked out commands to the other firefighters, who helped rescue sailors playing the part of injured astronauts.
“Let’s go!” he yelled. “Let’s move! We need to get this guy out of here!”
Using bulky, silver chemical suits and a C-12 propeller plane resembling a space shuttle, the team trained for disaster.
Space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled for launch in September 2004. It will be the first journey into space since Columbia broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts on board.
Morón Air Base, a small Air Force base 35 miles southeast of Seville, is one of three major emergency landing sites in Spain and Morocco. There are dozens of similar Transoceanic Abort Landing bases, or TALS, spread across the globe.
During each launch, the Navy medical team from Rota lines up on the Tarmac in Morón just in case they are needed. A similar team from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, travels to Zaragoza, the other emergency landing site in Spain.
Rota’s team has two major exercises each year. A group of NASA representatives usually travels to Spain to help teach new personnel how to use the equipment and critique performance.
Dr. Philip Stepaniak, a flight surgeon from Johnson Space Center in Houston, said it is important that team members get familiar with working with the complicated, $200,000 astronaut flight suits and are aware of the toxic gasses that are typically released during an emergency landing.
“We want to make sure people have gone through the motions,” Stepaniak said. “That they have an understanding who they’re working with, an understanding of the equipment. … That’s why we’re here.”
NASA continues to review safety procedures in the wake of the Columbia tragedy. The only major change to the shuttle program that will affect medical teams at overseas emergency landing sites is that nighttime launches have been scrubbed. Stepaniak said everyone at NASA is eager to get a shuttle back into orbit.
“The people there, they want to get back to flying,” he said. “That’s the business of NASA. People are very eager. Morale is getting much better and people are looking forward to this.”
Rota’s shuttle support crew is planning a larger exercise that will involve Spanish medical teams sometime early next year.