Science and Technology News

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Countdown to Endeavour: What is a Forward Air Observer?

By Carla Voorhees

Capt James Woodard is a 2006 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) who currently serves as an Air Force Mission Flight Control Officer and Range Control Officer for the 1st Range Operations Squadron at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  He is the Forward Observer Air for the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour for the STS-134 mission.  James is also the Mission Flight Control Officer for the Atlas V, Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) mission on 6 May 2011.

Range Safety is a risky business. Not only is the Air Force tasked with ensuring the protection of the six astronauts on board Space Transportation System-134, we are also responsible for protecting the general public from possible anomalies resulting from the launch vehicle they are manning. This responsibility, which is entrusted to Brigadier General Edwin Wilson (the Launch Decision Authority for the mission), requires several support positions to provide real-time data concerning the status of the mission. In support of this historic launch, I have the distinct honor and privilege of performing the duties of Forward Observer Air (FOA), which includes being one of the closest humans to the launch. This position, which is reserved exclusively for Shuttle launches, includes my reports on the integrity of the stack (i.e. I report whether or not the boosters, tank, and orbiter are still connected) during the early stages of the launch. The STS stack has four components including the orbiter, two solid rocket boosters, and the external fuel tank. I will act as the eyes of Mr. Tong Tang, the Mission Flight Control Officer (MFCO), when the Shuttle cannot be seen by forward ground observers, my ground counterparts, due to cloud layer obstruction.

I will be on board “Relay One”- a PA-28 aircraft, which has a secondary mission of relaying transmissions between the Coast Guard’s “Clearance One” aircraft and Lieutenant Colonel Julia Black, a member of the Active Duty National Guard. She will be the Surveillance Control Officer located in the Morrell Operations Center. Clearance One is responsible for helping clear the surveillance control box in the Atlantic Ocean (approximately 3,696 square miles) that could possibly be impacted by the Solid Rocket Boosters after separation from the Shuttle Orbiter and External Fuel Tank.

On the day of launch, the Shuttle MFCO will determine whether or not my position is mandatory for launch. This decision is based on cloud cover between 4,000 and 8,000 feet (when video or forward observers cannot verify stack integrity). Here at the 1st Range Operations Squadron, we have an intense operations tempo since I will be the MFCO one week later for the Atlas V Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) launch from Cape Canaveral. I am proud of my role in Endeavour’s final chapter, and I know we have much to look forward to with the future of manned spaceflight!

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