PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Reserve Citizen Airmen are used to supporting milestone rocket launches, and have supported manned spaceflight launches through the years; however, they have never supported a rocket toting a car.
SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk’s cherry red Roadster from Tesla, his electric car company, was the payload on the Falcon Heavy demonstration mission from Launch Complex 39A that lifted of from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center February 6, 2018 at 3:45 p.m. EST.
Before the majority of Space Coast rocket launches, 920th Rescue Wing HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters take off hours prior to the launch to provide aerial surveillance and clear the launch hazard area, an area considered potentially unsafe for marine traffic in the event of a launch anomaly.
HH-60G pilot Maj Paul Carpenter noted, “Today’s range clearing operation is reminiscent of how we operated in the Space Shuttle era (1981-2011) because of the large amount of propellant on Falcon Heavy, and SpaceX’s unique feat of landing the first stages safely on land. Instead of just clearing one area for the rocket’s ascent, we have two areas to keep an eye on – one for ascent, and one for return.”
The Falcon Heavy will be able to lift more payload than any other American rocket since the Saturn V, the NASA rocket used for the Apollo moon landings, according to a SpaceX press release.
“The Falcon Heavy will likely be the first of several vehicles that gets the United States back into manned spaceflight,” explained Carpenter.
Due to specialized training of Air Force pararescuemen and the Wing’s geographic location, the 920th RQW served as the primary rescue force for the astronauts on human spaceflight missions aboard the Shuttle, and will serve as the primary rescue force for the launch of the upcoming manned space platforms.
Like Space Shuttle launches with astronauts on board, this launch’s high visibility drew large crowds and generated significant boat traffic.
The helicopter crew of four (two pilots and two special missions aviators) were on the lookout for vessels in the Atlantic Ocean, working closely with the 45th Space Wing’s 1st Range Operations Squadron, and a Coast Guard cutter, to secure the area. The team cleared several vessels from the launch hazard area in the hours leading up to the successful launch of Falcon Heavy and landing of two boosters at SpaceX’s Landing Zone One on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
If the helicopter crew detects a vessel in the box, they attempt to make contact with it on a common maritime frequency and will let the captain know they are encroaching into the launch hazard area. They will then relay information to 1ROPS to determine the best course of action and ensuring public safety from any potential rocket fallout if the launch should go south.
“We can see a long way when we’re up there,” said 301st Rescue Squadron flight lead Lt Col Mike Stuker. With their use of radar, forward looking infrared, and an Automatic Identification System to monitor maritime traffic, they were able to maintain a “green” range status – verifying the range is cleared and secure – one of a number of areas that have must be in a “go” status (vice no-go) before the Launch Director will give the final approval to launch.
A testament to the power of this first ever launch of the Falcon Heavy, Lt Col Stuker noted, “It was the first time we heard the rumble of the rocket over the sound of the rotor blades.”