PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Florida --
Air Force Colonel and NASA astronaut, Nick Hague had a unique retirement gift for retiring pararescueman, Chief Master Sgt. Michael Ziegler; a gift which orbited the earth 200 times to honor his service.
The retirement ceremony on May 2, 2020 highlighted the 33-year career of Chief Ziegler, a 308th Rescue Squadron pararescueman. Some close family were on hand but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing measures meant that many had to send video messages, including Hague who wanted to personally deliver his gratitude but resorted to a video to tell his story.
As the Chief and small audience watched the screen, Hague explained how an event on October 11, 2018, fundamentally changed the way he viewed what search-and-rescue forces do.
Hague was riding in a rocket, going 4,000 miles an hour, when it disintegrated underneath him and his team. Luckily, the escape system pulled them to safety.
“I can tell you there was no better feeling, no greater sense of safety and security then when we had touched down on the ground in steps of Kazakhstan and on the outside of the window, that’s six-inches from my face, I get the knock and thumbs up from the PJ that had jumped in to extract us from the capsule,” he said. “That’s when I knew everything was alright.”
The astronaut would make it to the space station on his second flight and he brought a special item, which ultimately orbited in space for over 200 days, with the intention of gifting it to the career PJ at his retirement.
Air Force PJs are the only DoD elite combat forces specifically organized, trained, equipped and postured to conduct full spectrum Personnel Recovery (PR) to include both conventional and unconventional combat rescue operations. These Battlefield Airmen are the most highly trained and versatile PR specialists in the world.
“I was able to bring along a beret that I’m giving to you,” he said. “A beret symbolically just to show you how much what you’ve done is appreciated.”
Berets are a special type of headgear which have been a component of military uniforms since the mid-20th century. There are several colors that can be found in the U.S. Armed Forces each dictating which specialty profession the wearer is. The Air Force’s elite Special Forces, Pararescuemen, don the maroon beret.
Having an item flown in space is not an easy feat to accomplish. It can take years from a request to have an item sent to orbit to come to fruition, if it happens at all. Every single item that goes into orbit is scrutinized, weighed, and calculated. Just as you would be restricted to bringing a certain size of carry on item while flying a commercial airline, astronauts are restricted on the amount of items, based on weight and size, they can bring with them.
“It literally comes down to rocket science,” said Brent Maney, DoD Human Space Flight Support Office and former PJ.
The DoD HSFS Office supports all human spaceflight prgrams with unique DoD capabilities ensuring the global rescue and recovery of NASA and NASA-sponsored astronauts.
Maney, also a former PJ, has known Chief Ziegler since 1996 when he was his first Team Leader and mentor as a young PJ. He deployed twice with Ziegler during Operation Southern Watch and went on several Transoceanic Abort Landing Sites for shuttle support in addition to numerous training events.
“He was a true inspiration to me,” Maney said. “His demeanor, intelligence, skill and expertise – everything about him is exactly how I wanted to be as a PJ. I looked up to him as the gold standard of pararescue leadership.”
When Maney found out that the Chief was retiring over two-years ago, he knew he wanted to do something uniquely special for the extraordinary PJ.
“Since Shuttle ended, my unit [DoD Human Space Flight Support Office] has very little if anything left that has been flown in space,” Maney said. “I asked a friend, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Chas Tacheny, if it was at all possible to get a PJ beret to space and I knew if anyone could make it happen, he could. To get an item flown it is a lengthy process, so I knew we needed to act immediately.”
Tacheny works directly with the NASA Astronauts as a Rescue subject matter expert in an integration office. He brought Maney’s idea to Hague who volunteered immediately to take the beret as part of his personal items, ultimately forfeiting precious space to ensure Chief Ziegler would have a unique, one-of-- kind, item that will likely never again be flown.
“Hague heard 33-year PJ and had no hesitation,” Maney said. “Had he not taken the beret with his personal bag; we likely would never have been able to have this beret orbit in space.”
For more about CMSgt. Michael Ziegler's retirement ceremony, click HERE.