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 NASA prepares to re-enter the vast frontier, U.S. Strategic Command is at the ready as the space shuttle returns to flight.
Orbital Vehicle 103, also known as Space Shuttle Discovery, will launch from Kennedy Space Center, Fla. , July 26 and travel to the International Space Station to conduct tests and deliver supplies. USSTRATCOM 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.
As commander of USSTRATCOM, Marine Gen. James Cartwright is the Department of Defense manager for manned space flight operations. “The Joint Chiefs of Staff have designated USSTRATCOM as the primary point of contact for all manned space flight support,” said Air Force Maj. Scott Van Sant, chief of Space Surveillance and Support Branch.
USSTRATCOM’s global area of responsibility allows its commander to oversee support efforts through the Defense Department Manned Space Flight Support, or DDMS, office based at Patrick AFB, Fla. DDMS delegates responsibility to the other regional combatant commands, or COCOMs, to ensure manned space flight operations receive support around the globe.
“The shuttle takes off from Kennedy Space Center, which is in [U.S. Northern Command’s] area of responsibility,” Van Sant said. “But it could land anywhere in the world. It’s really imperative that a global combatant command has responsibility. ”
DDMS provides NASA with launch, landing and recovery support for the shuttle and it’s crew, contingency landing site support, payload security, public affairs support, worldwide communications, tracking and data relay, and medical support.
Van Sant added the bulk of the support is contingency planning in preparation for a Challenger or Columbia-type accident. “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 DDMS office in conjunction with USNORTHCOM and the other COCOMs 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 DDMS response. Van Sant gave several examples of situations DDMS has prepared for, such as: complications that could cause the crew to bail out over sea, loss of shuttle power during take off, emergency landing or a shuttle crash.
In the event of any such mishap, USSTRATCOM’s commander will take action, designating the appropriate combatant commander to handle the situation. That COCOM 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 DDMS, but NASA is prepared to return to flight. “We’re going to prove what we can learn from mistakes and move on,” said Bob Tucker, the NASA liaison to USSTRATCOM. “Discovery was the first orbiter to fly after the Challenger accident and it’s now going to be the orbiter that flies the first mission after the Columbia accident. ”
Discovery’s seven-member 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,” Tucker said. “We’re [also] going to re-supply the [international space station], which we’ve been unable to do as robustly as we’d like to do. ”