Yokota rehearses for emergency space shuttle landing
Stars and Stripes June 23, 2003
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Airman 1st Class Samantha Ward was an astronaut for a day.
Two weeks after she arrived at Yokota, Ward suited up in a NASA astronaut shuttle suit on Friday and landed in a C-9 jet on the runway.
“I liked it. It was fun,” she said afterward. “I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid.”
Ward and four other first-term airmen pretended to be astronauts making an emergency landing at Yokota aboard the space shuttle.
A small training team from the Department of Defense’s manned space flight support office at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., spent last week at Yokota helping base officials plan the biennial exercise.
Yokota is among dozens of designated emergency-landing sites for the space shuttle across the globe. Wake Island and Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska are the other two in the Pacific region.
According to the exercise script, a meteorite punctured the orbiter’s fuel tank while attached to the international space station. A propellant leak prompted a quick departure. Based on the shuttle’s orbit, Yokota was the closest landing site.
“If we don’t leave now, we won’t be able to make Yokota,” said Maj. Jay Summers, explaining the astronauts’ predicament. “If we don’t make Yokota, we won’t make anywhere.”
Summers is the manned space flight support office’s assistant chief of training.
The exercise went off without a hitch. Hose trucks from Yokota’s fire department sprayed down the C-9 — similar in length to the orbiter — to douse a fictional fire in the wheel well. Ward was carried from the plane in a stretcher while the four other crew members walked.
Wearing the only decommissioned space shuttle suit available for the exercise, Ward played the part of an astronaut with muscles atrophied after six months at the space station. The others were 10 days into a resupply mission when the meteorite struck.
Several factors earned Yokota an emergency-landing designation, Summers said: the orbit of the international space station “falls over Yokota,” its ample runway measures 11,000 feet and DOD support can be summoned quickly.
In a real-life situation, there would be little notice the shuttle was coming in to land.
“They just get a phone call, like they did today: ‘Hi, this is us at Johnson Space Center. An emergency happened. The orbiter will be at your base in 60 minutes,’” Summers said.
Capt. Louis Orndorff, the shuttle airfield support coordination officer at Yokota, says the base could handle an actual shuttle-emergency landing.
“We know when the launches are, so we know when there is a space shuttle in orbit,” he said. “We’re ready to go in a very short notice. The challenges have all been addressed.”
The effort would be coordinated between DOD, NASA and base officials, he said.
Summers said there’s never been a true emergency landing of the shuttle. If it happened at Yokota, the biggest challenge probably would be getting the shuttle home, he added.
NASA would send a rapid response team to Yokota within 24 hours after the landing to tow the shuttle off the runway. It would take between 90 and 120 days to build a device to lift it off the ground, move a 747 underneath, attach the shuttle to the jet and take off.
“We have a plan. We’ve never had to use it,” Summers said.