The return of the Space Shuttle Atlantis from its historic final voyage this morning brings a bitter sweet moment as the nation reflects back on those famous words spoken by astronaut Neil Armstrong, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
For the men and women stationed at Coast Guard Station Port Canaveral, Fla., the shuttle’s return is the end of more than 30 years of support for the space shuttle program.
Since the inception of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration space shuttle program, Coast Guard active, reserve and auxiliary members have launched into action to ensure the safety and security of both the shuttle ground crews and bystanders wanting to catch a glimpse of the shuttle.
During every launch, Station Port Canaveral members took to the waters surrounding the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral to keep a sharp lookout for potential security risks while at the same time patrolling the area and talking with boaters about safety and areas to avoid.
The Coast Guard has an array of different roles during each shuttle mission; however the entire operation is not possible without the cooperation and support of local, state and federal partners.
“The interagency work has been a critical part of every evolution,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Kenneth Christian, a maritime enforcement specialist stationed at Port Canaveral. “We receive immeasurable amounts of support from all of the agencies involved.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Brevard Country Sherriff’s Office, NASA security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection all assisted in the maritime security mission, with a combination of 30 assets from each of these agencies.
“Every shuttle mission is unique,” said Chief Warrant Officer James Dubea, Station Port Canaveral’s commanding officer. “Reservists and Coast Guard auxiliary play a major role in the security zone enforcement and logistics. Without their knowledge and dedication, the launch missions would have been much more challenging to complete.”
No one better embodies the commitment the Coast Guard has with NASA and the space shuttle program than Coast Guard Auxiliarist James Smith who has participated in all 135 shuttle launches over the past three decades.
“I’ve worked every one of them,” Smith told a Florida Today reporter in a recent article. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do, being a part of it all these years.”
As the station crewmembers watched the final takeoff of Shuttle Atlantis on July 8, and it’s return today, they were a front-row witness to a historical moment and a part of a unique Coast Guard mission.
“It’s a sight that holds your attention no matter how many times you’ve seen it,” added Christian, who has participated in 12 shuttle launches since 2008. “The history associated with the program is a national treasure. All of my memories rapidly flashed through my head as the final shuttle was dancing in and out of sight through the clouds and into the great open void.”
Even though the NASA’s space shuttle program has officially ended, the partnership between NASA and the Coast Guard will continue. NASA scientists are currently aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot polar icebreaker homeported in Seattle, for Operation ICESCAPE. Healy crewmembers and NASA scientists are investigating the impacts of climate change on the ecology in the Arctic, on their way to new discoveries right here on Earth.