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MacDill named landing site for space shuttle

by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman
Thunderbolt editor
NASA photo by: Carla Thomas
The Space Shuttle Endeavor lands at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in May 2001. In the future, residents of MacDill could get to see the shuttle land practically in their own back yard.

You can bet millions of eyes will be glued to the television in March 2005 when the space shuttle is scheduled to make its 17th trip to the International Space Station. When the shuttle returns to Earth, those same eyes could see it land right here at MacDill. Officials at NASA have named the base an alternate landing site for several reasons.

Marty Linde, director of Landing Support in Houston, Texas, said software updates to the shuttles landing programs expanded the window of opportunity to land at other locations.

"The new software, which was scheduled to be installed before the accident last year, expands the possible landing sites from 25 to 45," said Mr. Linde. One of the key reasons for MacDill being chosen was its location. Why land at MacDill?

"We went with what made the most sense geographically," he said. As the processing and launch site of the Space Shuttle, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is also the preferred end-of-mission landing site for the shuttle orbiter. Since MacDill is only 138 miles away from Kennedy, it is roughly 2,500 miles closer than the main site used in the past as an alternate, Edwards AFB, Calif. Alternate sites are typically selected based on weather conditions or the power level of the shuttle during re-entry.

Landing the orbiter here at MacDill instead of in California saves processing time for its next mission and expenses due the proximity to NASA. A local landing also reduces the time the shuttle would be exposed to the uncertainties and potential dangers of a ferry trip atop one of NASA's two modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

Getting the shuttle "piggyback" is one of the major issues of landing at an alternate location. A team from Kennedy Space Center would take care of the details and most of the labor, but Team MacDill won't be standing idly by.

"There aren't too many agencies on base that wouldn't be affected," said Mr. Linde. From air traffic control to fire, crash and rescue, as well as security forces and medical personnel, there are hundreds of people on base who would be involved. That is in addition to the team of more than 500 Department of Defense, NASA and contracted civilians from various agencies throughout the country.

Although the odds of the shuttle actually landing here are very slim, MacDill personnel will undergo extensive training to support a landing on base. Training for agencies throughout the base has been tentatively scheduled for training the last week of April, and will be spearheaded by the DoD Manager's Manned Space Flight Support office, from Patrick AFB, Fla.

Maj. Russell Wood, deputy chief of the Training Division at DDMS, said the initial "Turn Around Brief," includes three days of training covering multiple aspects of shuttle operations.

"It's basically 'Space Shuttle 101'," said Major Wood. "The majority of the training is for on-scene commanders, but will also include the full gambit of those who would be involved in an emergency landing.'"

Who's affected the most?

Air Field Management would be responsible for ensuring the air space is clear in the immediate area around MacDill so there is a safe flight path for the shuttle use. It could have as little as 30 minutes notice said Major Wood.

Fire, crash and rescue personnel will be informed of the hazards of approaching the shuttle after it has returned from space. One concern is the toxic gases used to cool various components on the shuttle during re-entry, which could possibly be leaking. Fire fighters need to be aware of that possibility in order to accomplish their main task: extracting the astronauts from the shuttle.

Security Forces main concern would be to secure the area from any number of threats, said Major Wood. Keeping away anyone interested in getting a "souvenir" is one reason, as well as protecting the base population from any hazards the shuttle could pose.

Medical personnel would be in charge of helping the astronauts remove their highly complicated space suits, as well as giving them a thorough physical.

Since the medical aspect is geared towards working directly with the astronauts, it will not be included in the initial training. However, a date for that training has not been set at this time, said Major Wood.

All of these aspects will be covered in-depth long before the shuttle is scheduled to launch again in March, 2005.

Those hoping to get some hands-on time with the shuttle will be disappointed to hear it will not be making an all-star appearance here for training purposes. Instead, computer based training courses have been developed to get everyone up to speed.

Those same courses will be used at other locations named around the country as alternate landing sites. Those sites include: Skid Strip, at Cape Canaveral, Cecil Field, which is just outside of Jacksonville, Fla., China Lake Naval Air Station, Calif., and Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

"The probability that it (landing at an alternate site) will actually happen is low, but it sure is nice to know the support is there," said Mr. Linde.

 

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