Charleston C-17 transports NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander

  • Published
  • By Shauna Heathman
  • 437th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
The Phoenix Mars Lander began its journey to the red planet in May by first flying on board a C-17 Globemaster III from Charleston Air Force Base.

An Aircrew from the 16th Airlift Squadron transported the Phoenix Mars Lander, built by Lockheed Martin in association with NASA, from Buckley AFB, Colo., to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The transport marked the ninth time Charleston AFB C-17 crews have supported NASA's Mars missions. 

"We prefer to go the C-17 route because we know who we're working with. We like the familiarity we have with the crews and that they have with us. We also have that established heritage with the C-17," said Tim Welton, a Lockheed Martin's logistics management analyst. 

Charleston AFB crew members along with Lockheed Martin specialists, spent nearly two hours uploading the 9,600-pound lander container in addition to the other support pieces of equipment onto the C-17. The lander, enclosed in an environmentally controlled shipping container, passed through the loading doors of the C-17 with only inches to spare. 

"You have to have a lot more patience due to the sensitivity of the cargo. It's a slow process, but definitely necessary," said Tech. Sgt. James Hader, a loadmaster from the 16th AS. "It was an inspiring experience to fly a mission other than the usual desert runs, but it is in direct proportion to our nation's exploration." 

"It was great doing this mission because you don't get to transport cargo like this every day," said Staff Sgt. Michael Morris, 16th AS loadmaster. "It was overall a good crew, good mission and good fun." 

Getting the lander from Buckley AFB to Kennedy Space Center for its launch preparation was critical. Everything from takeoff to landings had to be completely smooth because of the lander's fragile state. 

Controlled by its own life support system, the lander was sealed to prevent any contamination en route. 

"Of course there's a lot of pressure on us. The entire mission was carefully planned out and there's a reason Charleston AFB was chosen for this assignment," said Capt. Zach Hall, a 16th AS pilot. "Team Charleston is dedicated to every mission and the C-17's capabilities allow large cargo of this capacity to be transported with full reliability." 

Bad weather on the original flight path caused a change in route. It was imperative to have smooth air for this transport so the crew rerouted the plane north over Chicago and then to Kennedy Space Center. 

"The aircrew is not the sole entity for the success of the transportation," said Maj. J. Scot Heathman, an aircraft commander from the 16th AS, who transported the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2005. "All of Team Charleston had a hand in making this happen and it's pretty unique that NASA keeps calling on us for mission support. The rapport we have with Lockheed Martin and NASA is significant. We understand how critical the mission is and Lockheed Martin and NASA have made us feel part of their team from beginning to end." 

The entire Phoenix Mars Lander mission is a $415 million project and is an irreplaceable asset, said Ed Sedivy, a Lockheed Martin program manager. 

"We have had really great success with air support out of Charleston," Mr. Sedivy said. "After talking to the crew and knowing they've flown a mission like this before, we've felt very confident about the entire transport. Not only does the crew know how important the cargo is, they feel good and truly do care about it as much as we do." 

The lander is scheduled to launch in August attached to a Delta II rocket, and once on Mars it will look for water, study the Martian atmosphere and soil, and look for signs of life, past and present.

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