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Paul Nicholls, a fire department crew chief at RAF Fairford, England, dons his gear Tuesday prior to the launch of the space shuttle Discovery. The base in western England is a designated emergency landing site in case of problems soon after launch.
Paul Nicholls, a fire department crew chief at RAF Fairford, England, dons his gear Tuesday prior to the launch of the space shuttle Discovery. The base in western England is a designated emergency landing site in case of problems soon after launch. (Ron Jensen / S&S)
Paul Nicholls, a fire department crew chief at RAF Fairford, England, dons his gear Tuesday prior to the launch of the space shuttle Discovery. The base in western England is a designated emergency landing site in case of problems soon after launch.
Paul Nicholls, a fire department crew chief at RAF Fairford, England, dons his gear Tuesday prior to the launch of the space shuttle Discovery. The base in western England is a designated emergency landing site in case of problems soon after launch. (Ron Jensen / S&S)
Lt. Col. Tom Gill, deputy commander of the 420th Air Base Group at RAF Fairford, England, talks to the base control tower Tuesday during the launch of the space shuttle. Gill was commander of the effort at the base to secure the shuttle had it needed to use the base.
Lt. Col. Tom Gill, deputy commander of the 420th Air Base Group at RAF Fairford, England, talks to the base control tower Tuesday during the launch of the space shuttle. Gill was commander of the effort at the base to secure the shuttle had it needed to use the base. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

RAF FAIRFORD, England — Somewhere beyond the canopy of gray that hovered above RAF Fairford on Tuesday afternoon, the space shuttle Discovery was making its way to outer space.

On the ground, more than two dozen people stood watch in case the shuttle had a problem in the first minutes after launch and needed a friendly place to land. Firemen, cops, a medic and others were dressed for trouble they expected not to come.

“The stakes are as high as anything we do in the military,” said Lt. Col. Tom Gill, deputy commander of the 420th Air Base Group. He was designated commander of the mission Tuesday to keep watch for a troubled spacecraft.

The globe is pockmarked with dozens of Tactical Abort Landing sites, known as TALs in the parlance of the space agency. If the shuttle experiences problems within the first seven minutes of flight, it’s headed to RAF Fairford.

Fairford is a U.S. Air Force contingency base. It is quiet most of the time, but the 200 airmen assigned to it train for times when it is needed, such as it was during the invasion of Iraq and the bombing effort on Kosovo in 1999. Then, it swells to more than 1,000 airmen.

Tuesday’s effort was something they had trained for. NASA comes periodically to teach the airmen and the British employees what is needed.

Tech. Sgt. Gregory Beavers, the medic on hand, said the training is quite specific, even down to the proper way to cut a spacesuit off an injured astronaut.

“We usually have training once a year and we have an exercise on the flightline once a year,” he said.

In the hours before the launch, the base held multiple briefings.

Perry Cook, the assistant fire chief, went over details such as the type of hazardous gasses found on board and the hand signals the shuttle crew would use if communication gear was down.

His 19 airmen are all Brits, although he, the fire chief and the other assistant chief are Americans.

The parameters discussed are wide, from a simple landing and a quick removal of the crew to a shuttle spewing gasses that requires evacuation of part of the base. They have practiced them all, he said.

U.S. Navy aircraft from two bases in Italy had astronauts airborne during the shuttle takeoff, providing information to NASA in the event the shuttle needed to make an emergency landing at one of two designated TAL sites in Spain — Moron Air Base or Zaragoza Air Base, said Capt. Michael Reed, chief of staff for Combined Task Force-63 at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy.

A C-26 twin engine propeller plane from Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, and a contracted Lear jet from Naples were airborne as the shuttle took off, Reed said.

The shuttle didn’t need the folks at RAF Fairford. It passed overhead above the clouds and went on its way. But that didn’t stop the people on the ground from being ready.

“You have to take the mind-set that, yes, it’s coming here,” said Maj. Craig Slebrch, the base civil engineer. “You plan for it coming.”

For Senior Airman Stuart Baxter, the successful launch meant he missed his chance to drive the shuttle crew on his bus. He took part in the last training exercise and was taking things seriously as launch time approached. “I don’t want to be the guy who messes up out there,” he said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Sandra Jontz in Naples, Italy, contributed to this report.

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