Rescuers prepare for Atlantis disaster

The New York Air National Guard?s 106th Rescue Wing, a 15-member crew based in Westhampton Beach, was in Cape Canaveral, Fla., prepared to rescue astronauts if disaster struck during the space shuttle's final liftoff. Videojournalist: Thomas A. Ferrara (July 8, 2011)

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In the moments before the shuttle Atlantis rocketed skyward from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Friday, a Long Island-based team of Air Force rescue fliers readied themselves in a cargo plane idling on a runway not far away.

They wanted very much not to be needed.

If a disaster forced the shuttle's four astronauts to ditch into the ocean, it would be up to these fliers to fly as far as 300 miles over the Atlantic to help find them, pluck them from the sea and bring them to safety.

As they waited, everything they would need was inside their plane -- rubberized boats, scuba equipment, radios, cutting tools, flotation devices and medical supplies.

Between them, the 15-member crew -- members of the New York National Guard's 106th Air Rescue Wing based at Westhampton Beach -- had tens of thousands of hours of experience working on rescues. Some had traveled to the battlefields of Iraq, the mountaintops in Afghanistan, or to stricken vessels far out into the North Atlantic.

"We hope and pray they don't have their worst day," Senior Master Sgt. Michael Murphy said of the astronauts a few hours before launch time. "But if they do, we hope we have our best day."

Members of the Air Rescue Wing have been part of rescue teams for each of the 108 other shuttle launches since the Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger explosion. That disaster, which claimed the lives of all seven members of the shuttle's crew, persuaded NASA to expand its astronaut recovery program. NASA tapped the 106th, with its extensive maritime rescue experience, to help develop the sea rescue program it has used ever since.

By launch time Friday, members of the 106th had done all they could to prepare. As it was the last launching of America's space shuttle program, it would be the last time these rescue fliers would be on the ready as a shuttle was launched into space.

Now, all they could do was wait.

Murphy, who grew up in Florida, had witnessed firsthand the shuttle program on its most tragic day.

He was a middle school student living near Tampa when the Challenger was launched. He and fellow students looked east from their school, traced the Challenger's path as it climbed from the distant horizon, then were stunned when it suddenly disappeared. They knew a schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe from New Hampshire, was on board.

"We all knew immediately what had happened," Murphy recalled.

"It really affected everyone in my school," Murphy said. "It was the first time that a schoolteacher had been picked as part of the shuttle crew, and a lot of my teachers had wanted to be picked. So when it exploded, everyone was just numb."

Murphy, 39, said he had no idea he would eventually serve as a guardian angel to the astronauts when he joined the Air Force. All he wanted to do was avoid a life of dead-end jobs and drinking binges he said consumed many of his childhood peers.

He applied for a position in the Air Force's elite Pararescue program, survived a two-year training program that combines survival, mountain climbing, parachuting, scuba and a host of other skills, and in 1992 became one of only 11 of more than 80 of his classmates who earned the pararescueman's signature maroon beret.

His first ocean rescue mission sent him to the aid of a Japanese tuna trawler off the coast of Iceland. Later, he flew to the aid of a heart-attack victim who was stricken in the Bering Sea far off the coast of Alaska.

"I became a better PJ [parajumper] because of going out on missions and getting experience," he said. "You can train and train, but every single mission is different."

Friday's launch brings to a close the last major contribution Long Island has made to the nation's space program. Parts of the shuttle's wing and tail were developed here when Grumman -- which also built the Apollo Lunar Module -- was based in Bethpage. And the 9,000-foot runway at Francis S. Gabreski Airport, where the 106th is based in Westhampton, served as a backup landing site for the shuttle during launches that took it just east of Long Island.

Members of the 106th -- which includes part-time guardsmen who are police officers, firefighters, airline pilots and even a New York City subway mechanic in their civilian lives -- say they are hopeful manned space exploration will resume eventually under a new program, and that they will be called on for future rescue missions.

But for now, what was the final launch of America's 30-year space shuttle program was a bittersweet moment for members of the unit, said Lt. Col. Scott Stenger, who served as a backup rescue mission commander during Friday's launch.

"It's an exciting day, but it's a bit of a sad day," said Stenger, 38, of Flanders. "We go all over the world, but this is a very special mission. This is something everyone with the 106th has been proud to do."

For his part, Murphy said he is more than happy to have spent years training for a launch disaster that was never repeated.

"It's good to see," Murphy said of Friday's flawless launch. "We've trained all these years for a contingency that never happened."

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