Working With PJs
Among my most interesting jobs at NASA was one of my first important ones. The first Space Shuttle launch was scheduled for the spring of 1981. My class of “Thirty Five New Guys” who had joined the Astronaut Corps in 1978 hoped we’d get to play a role in that exciting upcoming event.
Director of Flight Crew Operations George Abbey called me to his office in 1980 with a request: “Rhea, do you think you could work on the search and rescue operations for the first four Shuttle flights?”
I jumped at the chance – not knowing exactly what that entailed. Soon, I found out.
On its first four flights, Columbia would have ejection seats, so the two crewmembers could eject from the vehicle and parachute to a landing. We needed to figure out how and where the crew would need to be rescued.
If injured, how could crewmembers be cared for by the rescue team since they would be wearing the bulky pressure suits?
I began working with the Search and Rescue, or SAR, teams from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, meeting with some of the most remarkable fellows I had ever known. Some had experience in Vietnam where they had pulled wounded soldiers out of the jungle, often while under fire from the North Vietnamese. Since then, they had worked near the Atlantic coast on all kinds of rescues. The flight crews flew “Jolly Green Giant” helicopters, and carried teams of parajumpers, or PJs. PJs could jump from helo into the water or rappel down a rope to load people into a rescue basket and pull them up. I gained tremendous respect for their abilities.
I had experience in the Trauma Unit during my surgery residency, but I knew nothing about on-scene rescues. The PJs and helo crews knew all about that – but not much about the Space Shuttle or NASA operations. It would be a learning experience for all of us.
It also turned out to be a lot of fun.
We set up simulation scenarios for all possibilities. We fished floating dummies out of the ocean, we pulled mannequins out of the overhead hatch of a Shuttle model in a swamp…and many more. We practiced medical procedures on a suited “patient” in the back of a helicopter in flight. I learned quickly that the PJs had a protocol to follow as first responders; then, I could begin my assessment and provide needed medical care.
I felt like a rookie working with those rough and tumble, strong and immensely capable guys, but they were as kind to me as they could be. A few miles from the launch pad when we watched Columbia launch that spring, we knew we were ready. As the Shuttle roared into space, we were glad our services would not be needed. My first big job at NASA gave me a chance to be a part of an amazing team and present at an historic event, one never to be forgotten.
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