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Monday, April 18, 2011

Countdown to Endeavour: Dress Rehearsal for the 45th Weather Squadron

By Carla Voorhees

Kathy Winters is an Air Force Civilian Meteorologist in the 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. She is the Space Shuttle Launch Weather Officer providing weather support to the Space Shuttle Program at Kennedy Space Center as the Launch Team prepares for the 29 April 2011 launch of Endeavour.

The launch of Endeavour is quickly approaching and I am about to set up on-console for the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, the astronaut crew’s dress rehearsal for our upcoming Space Shuttle launch scheduled for 29 April 2011.  We’ve had a busy 48 hours! Severe weather impacted us the past couple of days, and just getting to the test today was a challenge.  On Wednesday, a front migrated into Central Florida and then sat on top of us for 2 days! The first day, thunderstorms with high winds and hail impacted the Shuttle, and yesterday our squadron had lightning, hail, and high wind warnings issued all day, preventing the Shuttle team from getting the work done to prepare for the countdown test.  We even issued two tornado warnings, and a funnel cloud was spotted near the launch pad. Storms marched over us one after another, and we had over 5 inches of rain at Kennedy Space Center. Luckily, we expected this weather, and the Shuttle team had the vehicle well protected.

I spend the majority of my time working side-by-side with our forecasters watching the weather (we call it “METWATCH”, which is short for Meteorological Watch), and talking frequently to the NASA Test Director (NTD) on-console to try to find windows of opportunity for the team to get work done while staying safe. We finished the evening off yesterday with a meeting to determine the new timeline given the weather delays. Getting to the final test today depended heavily on the weather clearing.  Luckily, the weather finally started pushing south, and we were able to give the team an “all-clear” from the lightning and winds. Knowing the team was counting on the weather clearing, I sat and watched and waited as the lightning gradually moved south. When we finally canceled the lightning warnings, I gave a final call to the NTD, said “thanks for everything,” sent out my lightning report, and left as quickly as possible since I needed to return first thing in the morning for the next weather briefing.  Our forecasters covered the operation overnight to ensure the necessary weather warnings and advisories were issued to keep the Shuttle team safe as they prepared for the countdown test.

I am Kathy Winters, the Shuttle Launch Weather Officer. My job is to ensure my squadron, the 45th Weather Squadron, provides the Space Shuttle program the weather support they need for ground, launch, solid rocket booster recovery, and post landing operations. As you can imagine, I take this job very seriously, but I also have a lot of fun doing it. I love when we jump right back into the next mission. Everything is fresh and we are on a roll, but I’m a little sad, too, knowing there are only two Shuttle launches left. This makes us cherish every operation, like the practice countdown today.

Everyone gets really pumped up for launch day, but as you can imagine, the work begins long before that. There are a lot of other things that happen before launch—the Shuttle roll from the orbiter processing facility to the 525-foot tall vehicle assembly building for stacking, then the rollout to the launch pad, the day in and day out exposure of the vehicle and personnel at the launch pad, the pre-launch operations such as the Rotating Service Structure retract, the filling of the external fuel tanking, etc.  As we reach launch week, there are several types of launch weather forecasts we issue, several press briefings, and briefings to both the NASA Shuttle team and the Air Force launch team.  When we finally get to launch day, it’s truly a sense that we are finally coming to the “moment we’ve been waiting for”. Planning for launch is great, but executing is amazing!

You will hear me say “we” a lot in my blog, that’s because I am part of the 45th Weather Squadron, and we all support the Shuttle mission and all vehicles that launch from our range, along with other squadrons in the 45th Space Wing. The 45th Weather Squadron is a team of over 30 military and civilian personnel that are well trained for our mission. We also provide weather support to the aviation missions at Cape Canaveral and Patrick Air Force Base. Earlier this week, one of the NASA Test Directors gave several members of our team a familiarization tour of the Shuttle on the launch pad to show us how what we do is so important to the NASA team.  What an awesome experience!

I am fortunate enough to work with amazing people including Air Force personnel at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and people from the NASA Kennedy Space Center. I also get to work with meteorologists from other NASA centers including the Natural Environments Group at Marshall Spaceflight Center and Spaceflight Meteorology Group at Johnson Space Center.  One of my favorite things about my job is working with the people I do on a day to day basis. You will hear me mention many of them as I blog over the next few weeks.

As we get closer to launch, I plan to blog about the daily weather support we provide as we approach launch day. I will share more about what we do to prepare for launch, and although I won’t be able to blog on launch day, I will share more details about what our team does on launch day. April 29th, here we come!

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