3, 2, 1, liftoff: REAC/TS goes to NASA for Perseverance Rover launch

Carol Iddins, director of the Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site, instructs during a training session

REAC/TS Director Dr. Carol Iddins (center) and Health Physicist Mark Jenkins (left) assist participants during a continuing medical education course.

At 2 a.m. ET on July 30, Kennedy Space Center (KSC) was waking up to NASA scientists preparing, calculating and forecasting conditions for the morning’s Perseverance Rover launch to Mars. Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site (REAC/TS) Director Dr. Carol Iddins and Health Physicist Mark Jenkins, PhD, were alongside NASA’s team with a job of their own: providing essential radiation emergency response support and consultation.

Iddins and Jenkins were assigned to the Medical Decon Team for the launch. With the Perseverance Rover generating power from a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator containing radioactive plutonium dioxide, REAC/TS was called in to provide emergency medical response in the case of a launch anomaly.

For more than a year leading up to the launch, REAC/TS staff took turns traveling to Florida to deliver medical courses to healthcare providers, hospital personnel and emergency responders at medical facilities local to Cape Canaveral, including personnel from KSC’s Occupational Health facility. About 200 participated in the courses, and attendees were from four medical centers in addition to KSC. Their professions ranged from physicians to critical care and emergency response nurses and paramedics to health physicists.

Even with all this planning, no one could have predicted preparing for a launch during COVID-19, adding additional meaning to the rover’s name, Perseverance. “The schedule changed a lot,” said Jenkins. “NASA decided to have virtual launch practice sessions,” explained Iddins. “The COVID-19 situation really dramatically changed things.”

Being an essential, worldwide emergency response asset, the REAC/TS team remained in quarantine up until the launch. Remaining cautious, Iddins and Jenkins brought enough shelf-stable food and water that they would not have to venture to grocery stores during their stay in Florida. KSC also enforced mask and social distancing requirements for all personnel on-site. “Our mission from the very beginning was to maintain our readiness. In case any event occurred, we would be ready to deploy,” said Jenkins.

Once arriving in Cape Canaveral, Iddins and Jenkins joined all other Department of Energy public health and safety assets who were deployed to support the launch. “While we waited, we made sure the team got the background of radiation measurements and made sure all the teams had good communications,” explained Iddins.

When the countdown reached T-minus two minutes, they made sure to step outside to witness Perseverance takeoff in a clear, early-morning Florida sky. “It was a great place to see it. More impressively, we felt it,” said Iddins. For Jenkins, this was the first time he had the chance to see a NASA mission launch in person. “You get the sound of the roar and the sonic boom when it takes off,” said Jenkins.

Meanwhile, back in Oak Ridge, the rest of the REAC/TS team was on-call, ready to answer phone calls in the case of a radiological event during the launch. Supporting the launch was a team effort from remote and on-site locations, said Iddins. “We do know that there will be future Mars launches coming up,” Iddins said. “And we hope to support them.”

Timeline infographic of REAC/TS' support to NASA misisons

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