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Airmen at Zaragosa Air Base support NASA's final shuttle launch

by Tech. Sgt. Chenzira Mallory
86 Airlift Wing Public Affairs

7/14/2011 - ZARAGOZA AIR BASE, Spain (AFNS) -- Airmen from U.S. Air Forces in Europe provided support at the Transoceanic Abort Landing Site in Zaragoza, Spain, as NASA scientists concluded the shuttle program with the successful launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis July 8.

The TAL serves as a safe haven, in the event something goes wrong during the shuttle's assent and is equipped with a long runway, emergency crews on stand-by and specialized communication equipment.

The Zaragoza TAL is one of three primary abort landing sites within USAFE. Airmen deploy to TALs to augment teams comprising NASA, Spanish air force and other DOD members. Days before each shuttle launch, the Airmen provide support consisting of weather observers, firefighters, medics, communicators, para-jumpers and aircrews.

During this time they prepare by participating in simulated shuttle landing exercises while running tests on all their gear. On launch day, they stand by ready to support if needed.

Master Sgt. Armando Avila of the 886th Civil Engineer Squadron's fire department plays a vital role during these TAL missions.

"My job is to provide crash and fire rescue; to basically go in and rescue the astronauts if needed," Avila said.

Other members prepared the C-130J Super Hercules and C-21 aircraft in case search and recovery assets are needed away from the base. Staff Sgt. Ruben Rodriguez, an 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief, ensures there aren't any delays in getting the para-jumpers where they need to be in the event of a landing.

"I ensure the aircraft is inspected, fueled and maintained, prior to each shuttle launch," he said.

This was the 135th shuttle mission Airmen deployed to support during the past 30 years. For some Airmen this was their first time supporting this mission.

"I feel privileged to be a part of this event," Rodriguez said. "It's not something you get to do every day. This is something you only see on TV."

The day of the launch, weather observers released meteorology balloons to ensure the conditions were safe for the shuttle to land. The para-jumpers and medical Airmen gathered and ops-checked all of their rescue equipment. Everyone worked within their own unique role preparing for the unthinkable to occur.

As the shuttle lifted off, the teams at the TAL gathered their gear and crowded around TVs to monitor the activities taking place. Being a part of this event held different meanings for everyone in attendance including Senior Airman Calvin-Klein Freeman, 86th Operational Support Squadron loadmaster.

"It's been a cool experience," he said. "Ever since I was a kid, I've always wanted to be an astronaut and today I feel like an honorary NASA member."

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