NOAA's June 2011 Report

Main entrance to the Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Credit: Andy Cox
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As the crew of the final space shuttle flight prepares to return home early Thursday morning, ground teams at Mission Control in Houston is preparing to support their entry and landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Among the teams at Mission Control is the National Weather Service Spaceflight Meteorology Group (SMG), which has provided landing weather support for all 135 shuttle missions. I visited the SMG office several days prior to the final launch for a behind the scenes look at their final preparation.

L-2 days: Two days prior to launch

Even with the end of the space shuttle program, NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston is not going anywhere. Thousands of NASA employees and contractors will lose their jobs across the country at the end of the shuttle program, but the center itself, just as it did at the end of the Apollo program, will remain to support the next manned spaceflight program, whatever that may be.

You can almost hear the ghosts of Apollo speaking as you stroll along the pathways through the JSC campus. Campus, in fact, is an appropriate word to describe this facility that was born nearly 50 years ago.

The land on which JSC sits was previously owned by Rice University. Buildings are laid out around a landscaped quad. A series of ponds, built to supply the air conditioning systems, also houses families of ducks. Several families of deer also call JSC home.

After arriving at JSC, I was escorted to Building 30, the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Mission Control Center. In April 2011, the building was named after NASA’s first flight director and the “Father of Mission Control.” The shuttle and International Space Station flight control rooms are located inside

More: Understanding the Shuttle

Access to Building 30 is tightly controlled, as you would expect. The first sign that you may have wandered somewhere you are not supposed to be is when you reach the set of metallic doors marked “LIMITED AREA”.

Building 30 also houses the National Weather Service Spaceflight Meteorology Group (SMG). We were met at the entrance by SMG lead Techniques Development Unit (TDU) meteorologist Doris Hood.

TDU meteorologists not only assist the lead forecasters during missions, but are also responsible for technology transfer and developing new data sources and computer system enhancements between missions. They also manage SMG’s computer systems and data flow during mission support. TDU meteorologists are the prime forecasters for upper winds to support NASA wind analysts for launch and landing.

Tim Oram was the lead forecaster for STS-134, which landed in May 2011. “One of the great things about being on the weather team,” said Oram, “is being involved in a large variety of disciplines, from flight dynamics to software development.”

More: Behind Shuttle Forecasting

As we arrived at the SMG offices, lead STS-135 meteorologist Brian Hoeth was giving a weather briefing to ascent flight director Richard Jones. After Jones made his way over to lead Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) forecaster Mark Wiley, I sat down with Hoeth to get the same briefing the flight control teams get.

“You really have to set up a story for the flight director so they understand what’s going to happen,” said Hoeth, “and can have confidence in the forecast as it plays out.”

One thing that strikes you is how well the flight and weather teams understand each other’s worlds. Ascent flight director Richard Jones and weather flight director Tony Ceccacci listened to the briefings from Hoeth and Wiley, and asked intelligent questions about the precipitable water and flow regimes.

Wiley described how groups from the USAF 45th Weather Squadron travel to the TAL sites to monitor conditions and launch a series of weather balloons to measure the atmosphere. A group of astronauts also travel to the TAL sites, where they fly aircraft in the hours prior to launch at the direction of SMG to keep an eye on any weather that develops.

After giving me a forecast briefing, Hoeth showed me a fax sent from Kathy Winters, shuttle launch weather officer with the USAF 45th Weather Squadron (45 WS) at Cape Canaveral. SMG and 45 WS collaborate on the KSC launch forecast to provide NASA teams in Florida and Houston with consistent information. Written at the top of the fax by Winters was a single word: "Yuck."

I was offered an opportunity to observe the L-2 day Mission Management Team (MMT) meeting, one of the last gatherings of everyone involved in deciding whether to proceed with the countdown. The first ten minutes or so consisted of Winters pessimistically describing the weather setup at KSC for Friday and beyond, and Hoeth providing a bit of optimism with the TAL forecasts. The next ten minutes saw the other supporting teams reporting no issues for launch and the MMT giving a “go” to proceed.

L-1: One day prior to launch

On the day prior to launch, known as L-1, SMG briefs the astronauts and flight director. Hoeth pessimistically described the Florida weather setup to the crew of Atlantis. The four astronauts were listening from a conference room while under standard pre-mission quarantine in the crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Jones and Ceccacci were listening from their seats in the shuttle flight control room. Of course, this was not the first time they had heard the launch-day forecast.

The SMG team starts looking closely at the mission forecast at least a week prior to launch and frequently updates the flight control team on potential areas of interest. That preparation helps communication run smoothly when weather issues arise on launch or landing day.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise,” said STS-135 ascent flight director Richard Jones. “We should be talking enough to know we’re in this special circumstance, and we’re going to possibly apply an exception or waiver if it comes to that day. As long as we’re in synch, it should be not a surprise to anybody.”

Between-mission preparation is also important. Shuttle crews and ground teams train early and often to learn how to calmly deal with any problems during the actual mission.

Jones explained, “SMG is unique, because we participate in weather simulations with them. We go through scenarios so we know how to talk to each other and how to interpret the weather data. We get familiar with the lingo they’re using, and they’re getting familiar with the lingo we use back to them."

I was not able to stick around for launch day, but according to Hood, “There’s a big difference on launch day. The intensity picks up significantly.”

Despite the pessimistic forecast, at the end of the briefing Hoeth told the crew of Atlantis that they would “work the weather as hard as they could” on launch day.


Follow @twcspacewx on Twitter for the latest space news. Submit your shuttle weather questions on Facebook or Twitter (use #shuttlewx).

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