Coastguard may lead Nasa rescue missions in Atlantic

The coastguard could lead search and rescue operations for Nasa in the North Atlantic when the US space agency resumes manned space missions in 2016.

Nasa plans to recommence manned vehicle missions to the Moon and the International Space Station.

A senior official from Nasa has already visited the coastguard base at Shannon Airport to hold preliminary talks about possible search and rescue requirements in case a launch has to be aborted.

The end of the shuttle programme in 2011, after 135 missions, left the US with no craft of its own capable of sending humans into space.

As a result, they remain dependent on Russia to get US personnel and equipment to the space station at a cost of about $70m (€53.5m) a seat.

Don J Pearson, Nasa’s manager of mission planning and the integration office for the commercial crew programme, held talks with Irish Coast Guard personnel at Shannon recently.

Based at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, Mr Pearson has confirmed that Nasa is looking at establishing a more formal relationship with the coastguard in the near future.

The planned launch trajectory from Florida is north along the Eastern seaboard of the US, past Newfoundland in Canada, and across the Atlantic on a route that passes by the south coast of Ireland, the UK, and then on over Europe.

This means that the Irish Coast Guard would be the lead search and rescue agency in the event a manned vehicle has to ditch off the coast.

The “abort” area during the launch phase of future missions is expected to be up to 200 nautical miles (370km) from the Irish coast.

This falls well within the range of the coastguard’s newest helicopter, the Sikorsky S92, which went into service last year.

The helicopter features multiple communications systems including analogue (FM, VHF, HF) as well as Tetra Digital and satellite.

Mr Pearson confirmed that his visit to Shannon was personal in nature but said: “I was on vacation and wanted to drop by and see what it looks like and meet the people.

“We at Nasa are interested in their capabilities and so we may establish more formal interfaces soon.”

Chris Reynolds, Irish Coast Guard director, said: “Mr Pearson had previously contacted the base by phone from Nasa as he is interested in finding out general and contact information to determine rescue options to further Nasa’s planning process.”

Shannon Airport was a Nasa selected emergency landing site during the space shuttle programme in case the orbiter got into difficulty on its return to Earth.

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