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Transport Canada - Aviation Safety Letter Houston, Transport Canada Is on the Line…

Houston, Transport Canada Is on the Line…

by Denis Brunelle and Sarah Jardine, Civil Aviation Contingency Operations, National Operations, Civil Aviation, Transport Canada

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began flying its current space shuttles in April 1981. Having flown only 120 times, some would still consider the orbiter to be an experimental vehicle. Safety is of paramount concern to those involved in the space program, where every item is checked with painstaking care to ensure the success of each mission. Procedures and backups are put in place to help the crew and give them options in the event of an emergency.

Apart from the highly acclaimed “Canadarm,” Canadian astronauts participate in various shuttle missions; but Canada also participates in another important role: providing a suitable, safe landing site in case of an emergency. Personnel from Transport Canada’s Civil Aviation Contingency Operations (CACO), a division of the National Operations Branch in Ottawa, Ont., participate in all space shuttle launches to the International Space Station, and remain on standby until the shuttle is in orbit.

Transport Canada has been involved in the space program since 1995, when NASA formally requested the use of selected airports along the Canadian east coast in the event of an aborted shuttle launch, because the shuttle’s trajectory runs along the east coast of Canada. Today, because of their strategic locations and available facilities, Gander, N.L., St. John’s, N.L., Stephenville, N.L.,Goose Bay, N.L., Halifax, N.S., and, on occasion, Greenwood, N.S., airports are the designated sites. Additionally, the Halifax joint rescue co-ordination centre (JRCC) provides search and rescue capability in the event the astronauts have to bail out over the Atlantic Ocean. Transport Canada, in conjunction with NASA, the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) and NAV CANADA, has developed and tested the procedures that would be used if a shuttle was forced to land at one of these sites.

CACO acts as the Canadian co-ordination facility during a launch. Two hours prior to lift-off, using pre-determined criteria, CACO officers begin their detailed operational assessment on the suitability of each of the designated Canadian landing sites, and report their status to NASA. CACO initiates a communication link with the designated airports, NAV CANADA, Halifax JRCC, the Canadian Space Agency and the Government Operations Centre. Live communication is then established with mission control at the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) in Houston, Tex., approximately 30 min before lift-off, and remains operational until the window for an east coast abort landing (ECAL) has passed.

The window of exposure for an ECAL implicating the Canadian east coast landing sites comes during an 80-s timeframe, approximately 6 to 8 min after takeoff. Should a problem develop, a quick decision would have to be made to select the most suitable airport, based on weather and operational conditions. If the shuttle were unable to land at one of the airports, the crew would have to bail out into the Atlantic Ocean, triggering a rescue response from Halifax JRCC.

Within 8 to 10 hr of an emergency landing, NASA would deploy their rapid response team from the Kennedy Space Centre (KSC) and their crew recovery team from the JSC to begin recovery operations. In addition to the safing and reconfiguration of the shuttle for transportation back to the KSC in Florida, the extensive recovery process involves diplomatic co-ordination and co-operation between various Canadian and U.S. government departments and agencies, as well as the airport and local community.

In total, recovery operations would take some 400 NASA personnel up to 40 days—requiring approximately 19 flights utilizing C5 and C17 aircraft. Finally, the shuttle would be loaded onto NASA’s Boeing 747 and flown back to KSC in Florida.


The airport authorities are keenly aware of the important role they play in providing support to the NASA program, and have developed contingency plans for an ECAL. Recently, representatives from NASA and Transport Canada visited each Canadian site, provided an updated technical briefing on shuttle hazards for their emergency response and management personnel, and presented them with a commemorative montage, which included a Canadian flag that was previously flown in space. During the presentation, Marty Linde, Landing Support Officer, JSC, indicated the montage was a small token of appreciation from everyone at NASA, in particular the astronauts, who felt more comfortable knowing that should a problem occur they have options to land in Canada rather than having to bail out. By the end of  2007, Transport Canada and the Canadian airports had supported 33 launches. The shuttle program is scheduled to end in 2010. Until that time, CACO will continue to play a role in each launch, as part of the international effort to explore space—an extraordinary achievement that, due to all the activity behind the scenes, almost seems routine.

Keith Collins, President and CEO of the St. John’s International Airport (centre), having received a commemorative montage from Dennis Gagen, Director Ground Operations, Kennedy Space Centre (left) and Marty Linde, Landing Support Officer, Johnson Space Centre (right).

Keith Collins, President and CEO of the St. John’s International Airport (centre), having received a commemorative montage from Dennis Gagen, Director Ground Operations, Kennedy Space Centre (left) and Marty Linde, Landing Support Officer, Johnson Space Centre (right).


This article was published by Transport Canada in TP 185 Issue 3/2008 -. Reprinted with permission

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