What happens if NASA astronauts need to abort?

Behind-the-scenes military rescue team ready to save NASA astronauts

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – When the Crew Dragon capsule goes up, it must come down in the water.

If there's a launch abort, in-flight abort, or even in-orbit abort, Crew Dragon will come down in the water. Anywhere in the world.

Task Force 45 Detachment 3 is the unit of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force base tasked with recovering the capsule and rescuing the astronauts as quickly as possible.

Lt. Col. Michael Thompson, Commander of the 45th Operations Group, said if the capsule lands within 200 miles of Cape Canaveral, his unit will have the astronauts safe and dry within an hour.

That would be an easy mission.

"The biggest challenge in this mission is the tyranny of distance and the unknown of where the capsule may come down," Thompson said.

Thompson showed News 6 an entire hangar at Patrick AFB where dozens of inflatable boats and modified personal watercraft are stored, packed with medical supplies and rescue gear, ready to be loaded onto planes for transport around the country.

A third of the gear will be flown to Charleston, South Carolina and another third to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The remaining gear will stay at Patrick Air Force Base.

The flight path after launch of Dragon Crew takes it up the eastern seaboard, over the Atlantic Ocean, and even over Ireland before it reaches orbit.

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Task Force 45 will be responsible for 155 million square miles.

Thompson said the boats will be dropped from C-130 or C-17 military cargo planes in the event of an abort.

Pararescuers will hook up the capsule to the jet ski, tow it to the boat, and help the astronauts onto an inflatable "front porch" floating dock attached to the boat.

Maj. Chris Hearne, 45th Operations Group mission support division chief, said para-rescuers discovered during training with a mock-up that Crew Dragon floats upright.

"In the open ocean, the capsule bobbed 85 degrees on all axis," Hearne said. "So somebody got the idea they were sitting on a jet ski that was meant to move people around but what happens if we tow it? And they started towing the capsule and it's stabilized and the PJs were able to pull out the simulated astronauts no problem."

Thompson said the Task Force has been training for this mission for years.

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NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, STS-135 pilot, prepares for a flight in a T-38 trainer on his way from Houston to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the final Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT) on Monday, June 20, 2011. (NASA Photo / Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool).

“The rescue for the entire U.S. Space Command will be over a 150 people,” Thompson said. “That includes three HC-130s, three HH-60 Pavehawk helicopters, their associated aircrew, 26 Guardian Angel Para-rescuemen - the members who actually jump out to deploy. And then we’ll also have the support of two C-17s, one at Charleston and one at Hickam (Hawaii).”

Thompson said it has taken two years to pull together all of the rescue equipment in the hangar and three weeks just to rig it up.

“It’s important that the nation and the public know that we’re spending on this amount of resources to make sure our astronauts come home alive and they’re protected if anything were to happen,” Thompson said. “Our mission is sort of like a wedding planner, we’re behind the scenes for months in this case years, putting this all together, and if everything goes according to plan, you’ll never know we’re there.”

If Dragon aborts off the coast of another country, Thompson said the U.S. Department of Defense will coordinate with their military’s to secure rescue support.

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Attired in his Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit, astronaut Robert L. Behnken, STS-123 mission specialist, is pictured in the Quest Airlock of the International Space Station prior to the start of the mission's fourth scheduled session of extravehicular activity (EVA) while Space Shuttle Endeavour is docked with the station on Aug. 1, 2013.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.