Detachment tracks space shuttle Discovery

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- The 22nd Space Operations Squadron's Detachment 5 here is playing a pivotal role in the Discovery mission following its launch July 4 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- one in which the shuttle does not launch if the detachment is not ready.

"When the space shuttle launches and while it's orbiting Earth, it must always be tracked," said Maj. David Hanson, Det. 5 commander. "There must always be a satellite ground station that can see it and receive and send data at all times. Tracking stations take turns monitoring it and ‘hand it off' to each other as it orbits."

Det. 5 is the only tracking station between Hawaii and Diego Garcia, and it is essential in providing the continuous coverage required for the mission, according to the major.

"When the space shuttle is in orbit, it's our No. 1 priority, above any other satellite program we support, since it's a manned spaceflight," Major Hanson said.

Getting ready for such an important role is no easy task, and detachment members have been preparing weeks in advance.

"Several weeks before a launch, Det. 5 receives launch documents and begins to rehearse for the actual launch," Major Hanson said. "A few days before, there's an all-stations conference to determine last-minute questions and concerns. Throughout this pre-planning, as well as during orbit, we're in constant contact with NASA."

Also, Andersen's runway length and support network makes it valuable as an emergency landing site for the shuttle Discovery should major problems emerge during the mission and it has to land.

"The space shuttle re-enters the Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, and Andersen is close enough to make an emergency landing should there be a problem during re-entry," Major Hanson said.

Responding to such an event requires that base emergency responders attend the Space Shuttle Familiarization Course annually. Firefighters here also attend a bi-annual space shuttle rescue course at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

There, they learn how to rescue pilots and respond to the shuttle by using a shuttle mock-up.

"We would respond to (the shuttle) just like an aircraft, but we're specifically trained for the shuttle," said Mark Webb, assistant fire chief.

The space shuttle Discovery's 13-day mission is to re-supply the International Space Station and test new equipment and procedures that increase the safety of space shuttles.

Det. 5, near the island's northernmost tip about seven miles from Andersen, is one of eight worldwide satellite tracking stations that constitute the Air Force Satellite Control Network.

Its mission is to provide telemetry, tracking and commanding functions for Defense Department space assets, including weather, early warning, navigation, communications and other high-priority space programs. In addition to tracking NASA space shuttle launches, it also supports ballistic missile launches and NATO and allied nation satellites.