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Touch down ends Reserve rescue role in shuttle program

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The Space Shuttle Atlantis makes its return to Earth,  July 21, 2011. This is the final flight for the Atlantis marking the end of NASA's manned space program.  Rescue reservists from the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., have been present since the start of the shuttle mission to clear the range and stand by in the event of a mishap. The 920th RQW uses HC-130P/N King refueling aircraft and HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters to transport their highly-trained and effective rescue teams, often called Guardian Angels. Their unique combat search-and-rescue skills and equipment make them the most qualified in the world to respond to any emergency scenario, the worst being one that would cause the astronauts to bail out over the Atlantic Ocean during liftoff. Even though the shuttle mission has come to an end, the Airmen from the 920th RQW are on hand for every rocket launch to clear the 1,000 square mile area, called the Eastern Range, over the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Air Force photo/Major Matthew Simpson)

The space shuttle Atlantis makes its final return to Earth at Cape Canaveral, Fla., July 21, 2011. Reservists from the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., have been present since the start of the shuttle mission to clear the range and stand by in the event of a mishap. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Matthew Simpson)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Two Air Force Reserve HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, pilots and crew fly over the Space Shuttle Atlantis, July 21, 2011, at the Kennedy Space Center landing strip. Rescue reservists from the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., have been present since the start of the shuttle mission to clear the range and stand by in the event of a mishap. The 920th RQW uses HC-130P/N King refueling aircraft and HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters to transport their highly-trained and effective rescue teams, often called Guardian Angels. Their unique combat search-and-rescue skills and equipment make them the most qualified in the world to respond to any emergency scenario, the worst being one that would cause the astronauts to bail out over the Atlantic Ocean during liftoff. Even though the shuttle mission has come to an end, the Airmen from the 920th RQW are on hand for every rocket launch to clear the 1,000 square mile area, called the Eastern Range, over the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Major Matthew Simpson)

Two Air Force Reserve HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, pilots and crew fly over the space shuttle Atlantis at Cape Canaveral, Fla., July 21, 2011. The landing of the Atlantis marked the conclusion of the U.S.’s manned space program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Matthew Simpson)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AFNS) -- As the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean on July 21, it shed light on both the final landing of the space shuttle Atlantis and the final time Air Force reservists will perform their duties as guardians of the astronauts.

As a network of rescue responders, reservists from the 920th Rescue Wing from Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., have been the insurance policy ready to perform the world's largest search and rescue mission if called upon during the astronauts' daring entries and exits into space.

Atlantis touched down on the shuttle landing facility's Runway 15 at 5:57 a.m. EDT on July 21. After 200 orbits around Earth and a journey of 5,284,862 miles, the landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center here brought America's manned space program to a close after 30 years of space shuttle flights.

It was nice knowing the rescue wing was there as a security blanket all along, said NASA astronaut Richard R. Arnold II.

For the Airmen, "it's bittersweet," said Col. Robert Ament, the 920th RQW vice commander.

"Our training that we've done, our equipment we provided for the space shuttle, the specific equipment that we built ourselves, that we developed within the 920th, that we used to rescue astronauts, is significant," Ament said. "It was a huge contribution to the overall space effort."

The 920th's "Team Rescue" spent the day before the scheduled landing removing auxiliary fuel tanks from an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter to make room for the NASA medicine and medical gear used to treat the astronauts in the event of a mishap. At 2 a.m., hours before the landing, Pave Hawk aviators and Guardian Angel Airmen showed up here to get ready for the final shuttle descent. Overall, 40 ground and aircrew personnel launched their aircraft to clear the eastern range and preposition close to where the shuttle would touch down for the last time.

The eastern range is the 1,000-square-mile area beneath the shuttle launch path. Airmen spend several hours prior to the shuttle's return to ensure no one is in harm's way.

"The 920th Rescue Wing has stood by as search and rescue support for the manned space program since the early 60s, participating in one way or another," said Ament.

"This isn't the end of the space mission," said Col. John Madura, a NASA weather official and former 45th Weather Squadron commander. "We still have the Atlas and Delta rockets, and space payload mission. Man will go back in space, and we will need the continued support of the rescue units."

Rocket launches will continue and the reservists will remain gainfully employed clearing the 1,000-square-mile launch path over the Atlantic Ocean. They will also have deployments overseas and the continuous maintenance of the aircraft; however, something will now be missing.

"Our number one priority has to be to maintain mission-ready status for all personnel recovery forces," Ament said.

With their highly trained rescue personnel, the 920th RQW stands ready to support the next era of manned spaceflight, willing to meet the needs of NASA's unique, evolving missions.

For more information on the 920th RQW, visit the wing's website and page on Facebook.

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