Cornwall's Lt.-Col. Anthony Johnson working with NASA on emergency rescue plans

Handout Not For Resale Lt.-Col. Anthony Johnson of Cornwall is working in the U.S. Department of Defense with NASA on its emergency contigency strategy for the upcoming space shuttle launches this fall. Handout/Cornwall Standard-Freeholder/Postmedia Network Supplied

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A Royal Canadian Air Force lieutenant-colonel from Cornwall is part of NASA’s Human Space Flight Support program, helping develop its global contingency rescue response.

Lt.-Col. Anthony Johnson is part of a team that oversees the contingency plans for space launch evacuations. In plain English, that means responding to any astronaut evacuations after a space shuttle launch, from issues connecting to the International Space Station (ISS) to an evacuation high in the atmosphere.

Johnson’s team is responsible for setting the course of action in case any emergencies were to occur.

This fall, the U.S. Department of Defense will support the NASA commercial crew program, where Boeing and Space X will launch astronauts to the ISS with their CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon shuttles. This will be the first manned launches from Florida since the space shuttle program ended in July 2011— with the first ones scheduled for November of this year and missions to the ISS scheduled for 2020.

Before working on astronaut contingency plans for the past year, Johnson worked in Florida designing emergency responses for humanitarian crises like hurricanes or other natural disasters. His military service spans 28 years, and he started with the RCAF in 2006.

While he isn’t personally flying high to snag the astronauts midair, his job requires him to grapple with the logistics of recovering space shuttles that have landed back on Earth.

The biggest enemy to contend with, according to Johnson, is “the tyranny of distance.”

The Earth is a massive place, and typical rescue aircraft don’t have the fuel capacity or necessary speed to travel the potential distances they may have to cross. Long-distance aircraft, meanwhile, aren’t designed for rescue operations. A rescue team looking for a tiny shuttle over a huge swath of terrain, flying low in a plane going over 800 km/h isn’t exactly a simple task, especially for whoever has to jump out and recover the shuttle.

“This is a huge military, but this is totally new to them,” said Johnson.

Another key concern is if the shuttle lands in the ocean. The shuttles are designed for space travel, not for flotation, so time is of the essence in a water rescue.

They have response teams stationed in Hawaii and Charleston, N.C., which are the western and eastern extremes of the U.S., ready for recovering the shuttle wherever it may land on Earth.

There is little pre-existing material to work with, Johnson said, as the last time a manned space vehicle had to “splash down” was during the Apollo program, which ended in 1975. The Soyuz capsule used by the Russians, which has transported astronauts to the ISS, lands on the ground. He can blow off the dust on the old contingency handbook, but many of the staff members from that era are long retired. Between the time since then and the new technology, “this is a new game,” said Johnson.

Johnson is in a unique predicament in that he must work diligently to create extensive planning for whatever situation could happen, but he hopes that none of that hard work would have to be put to use.

“Our contingency response is likely and hopefully never going to be used, but I think that in the event of an emergency, we can trust that astronauts, including Canadians will be in good hands because of the dedicated U.S. military personnel that will be on standby at every launch,” said Johnson.

ndunne@postmedia.com

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