End of an Era: USAF Enables Trauma Rescue for Shuttle Missions

Lt. Col. Lars Ulissey is a United States Air Force Flight Surgeon and Chief of Bioastronautics, at the 45th Space Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. Previously he has been a family medicine physician, and was a pilot and VP 44 Patrol Plane Commander in the US Navy. He was awarded USAF Flight Surgeon of the Year in 2006 (AFMC) and 2010 (AFSPC).

Lt. Col. Lars Ulissey

Lt. Col. Lars Ulissey

Detachment 3, of the 45th Operations Group at Patrick Air Force Base, is home to the Human Space Flight Support office, which functions as a direct link between NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD). Among the many responsibilities of Det 3, one of the most important has been to provide contingency support for Space Shuttle operations. Flight surgeons and Air Force Pararescuemen (PJs) are critical elements of a rescue package that the US Air Force brings to each and every Shuttle mission.  Flight Surgeons work in concert with Air Force PJs and the crew of H60 helicopters (Jollys), to form the cornerstone of the medical rescue effort, should a Space Shuttle mission go awry.

The Flight Surgeons are stationed one to each helicopter and paired with two PJs, who are members of the military’s elite Special Forces or Air Force’s Personnel Recovery experts. The unique feature about a PJ, is that in addition to his special survival capability, each is medically trained to the level of a civilian paramedic. The flight surgeons bring added dimension to the rescue effort, by placing an Advance Trauma Life Support (ATLS) trained physician at the scene of rescue, for real time intervention. The Flight Surgeon’s role on the Jolly is to integrate with the crew to help retrieve, stabilize, treat and transport the patient as expediently as possible to the most appropriate medical facility. This can range from transporting astronauts to a nearby NASA designated triage site, or to the nearest and most appropriate trauma hospital, based on injuries.

H60 Rescue Helicopters at Patrick AFB

H60 Rescue Helicopters at Patrick AFB

In addition to the Jollys, the Air Force provides C-130 Hercules aircraft that are capable of in-flight refueling and can extend the range of Air Force helicopters beyond 200 miles off the Florida coast. Shortly before every Space Shuttle launch, the crew of the Hercules will depart Patrick Air Force Base and position themselves out over the Atlantic Ocean, toward the eastern end of the launch corridor. This pre-positioning allows for the timely air drop of PJs and RAMZ packages (acronym for a Zodiac recovery boat, specially rigged for air drops). Should a rescue situation occur beyond 200 miles from launch pad 39A, the C-130 PJs would be able to recover and stabilize patients, until the Jolly medical teams arrived on station.

Supporting the four astronauts of STS-135, we’ll have three flight surgeons and six PJs aboard the Jollys, which will be pre-positioned at Kennedy Space Center, in time for the final launch of Atlantis. The crewmembers come from all parts of the country and include a mix of both active duty and reserve airmen. Our current flight surgeon team comprises two men and one woman, to include a surgeon, an ER doc, and a family practice physician, who are all ATLS certified and experienced at providing medical rescue. In fact, each flight surgeon and PJ is a veteran to the Space Shuttle program and has volunteered to be a part of the DOD medical team, providing support to the crew of Atlantis and America’s final Space Shuttle mission.

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About Carla Voorhees

Carla Voorhees has always been interested in science, from the time she grew string beans under varying conditions for the science fair (3rd grade) to the time she took every math and science class she could during high school. As her path during college and beyond took her somewhat away from the hard sciences, she is thrilled to be a part of the Armed With Science team. Carla holds a B.S. in Electronic Media, Arts, and Communication from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2007), and an M.B.A. in Design Strategy from the California College of the Arts (2010). She works as a Web Strategist at DOD Public Web.
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