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With NASA’s final shuttle launch, JTF-STS wraps up its historic mission

  • Published
  • By Capt. James Hineline
  • JTF-STS commander
Today marks an important day in history as the world prepares to watch space shuttle Atlantis launch over Florida's space coast for its final voyage, bringing NASA's crewed Space Shuttle Program to an end.

If you've followed NASA's Space Shuttle Program, you are aware of the inherent dangers that can come with space exploration.

This is where Joint Task Force - Space Transportation System, or JTF-STS, comes in. Acting primarily in a support role to NASA, the JTF plans, supports, and conducts search, rescue, medical evacuation and recovery operations of the astronauts and shuttle in the unlikely event of an emergency. With C-130 airplanes and HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters pre-positioned prior to a shuttle launch, we are prepared to initiate search and rescue operations instantaneously, should NASA request our assistance.

The JTF also supports NASA's alternate landing sites at Edwards AFB, Calif., and White Sands Missile Range, N.M., by providing medical evacuation and emergency personnel transportation capabilities during consequence management operations.

Reporting to U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., the JTF is comprised primarily of Air Forces Northern personnel based at Tyndall AFB, in Panama City, Fla. But don't let the name Air Forces Northern fool you; JTF-STS truly is 'joint' in every sense of the word. Each branch of military is represented in some capacity either during launch or landing operations.

The Marines provide one of the C-130 aircraft and crews that refuel the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters with pararescuemen onboard prepared to conduct search and rescue operations should the need arise.

Our Navy and Coast Guard brethren have JTF liaison officers who work on a specialized search and rescue team, led by a USNORTHCOM federal civilian, whose job it is to compute parachute and water drift providing a more accurate projected search area. By monitoring the ship activity of Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the area, these liaison officers advise me of what assets are nearby to support rescue efforts.
During landing operations, Army personnel assigned to the JTF pre-position UH-60 Blackhawk and UH-1 Iroquois helicopters around the landing site and are prepared to conduct SAR operations as required.

Air Force rescue units make up the rest of the flight crew, and Air Force personnel on the JTF perform a host of other duties, including personnel, operations, logistics, communications, public affairs, common operating picture manager, and a medical expert, along with several liaison officers from various specialties.

The launch of Atlantis not only marks the 33rd and final flight for the Space Shuttle Program, but also the final mission for JTF-STS.

As NASA's Space Shuttle Program comes to an end, I reflect on the opportunities my military career has granted me - opportunities such as this, to be a part of American history. It has been my honor to serve as the JTF-STS commander. Good luck and Godspeed to Atlantis and the STS-135 crew.