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EOD 'up close and personal' with space shuttle

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- An elite few members of the U.S. military are allowed to touch the space shuttle.
Among those few are the proud Airmen of the 45th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight.

"We're the only military team in the world authorized to touch the shuttle - inside and out," said Master Sgt. George Price, 45th EOD Flight chief. "It's one of the perks of being here. We are part of NASA's response team."

EOD members are trained in the shuttle's pyrotechnics systems.

"We get hands-on training, to include a physical walk-down - inside and out of the shuttle," said Sergeant Price. "We get up close and personal with the solid rocket boosters, the main fuel tanks and all of the emergency egress systems."

The 45th EOD Flight provides critical first-responder support for all launches at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center.

"We're there for an anomaly or if anything goes wrong on the pad," said Tech. Sgt. Michael Chamberlain, EOD craftsman.

If something does go wrong, the EOD team aids NASA pyrotechnics experts, he said. "Then we'll go out and assist them in safing the pad."

Explosives on the pad include the charges that are supposed to sheer the large bolts which hold down the shuttle to the pad during launch.

The EOD Flight is part of the Launch Disaster Control Group. Prior to launch, the flight deploys two teams, one to Cape Canaveral AFS, the other to Kennedy Space Center.

If there is an explosion or fire on the pad, the two teams work simultaneously from each LDCG standby area, clearing a pathway into the Cape and KSC.

"We clear a path for mission-critical people to get out of there," said Sergeant Price.

"We form up a control group and devise a plan how to attack, whether to sit back and let it burn, and hope it doesn't detonate, or go in, working in conjunction with the fire department to clear them in and hose down a clear patch to go out and rescue people."

The pathways also open the way for other first responders.

"We show the fire department where explosive material is, so that rescue missions and firefighting can occur safely," said Sergeant Chamberlain.

More than 1 million pounds of propellant is used in the shuttle's twin solid rocket boosters.

The shuttle contains a number of flammable and/or explosive materials, including liquid oxygen, titanium tetrachloride, hydrazine, and ammonium perchlorate, 80 pounds of which is used in each of the 16 boost separation motors that kick the solid rocket boosters away from the shuttle.

When the Columbia tragedy occurred over the skies of New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana in 2001, a nearer EOD team stabilized the area, but once on scene, the Patrick AFB team was in control of all aspects of recovery with respect to explosive mitigation.

"We deployed a six-person team; half of our shop went TDY to the Columbia recovery," said Sergeant Price. "We broke into three two-person teams. My team was in charge of the whole land area from the Louisiana-Texas border to the Texas-New Mexico border."

The EOD team trained each of the 25,000 searchers who helped in the recovery effort, which was headed by the Environmental Protection Agency with NASA oversight. Team members worked more than 90 days straight without a day off, said Sergeant Price.

"It was really tough duty," said Sergeant Price. "It was kind of personal. We don't really know the astronauts on a personal basis, but we're an integral part of the process. The shuttle can't be launched without us. It hits close to home."