Stormy Weather

Recently I had a couple of regular scheduled airline flights where we encountered strong turbulence (at least for an airliner) and got bounced around pretty good.  It happens and its not pleasant.  That put me in mind of the poor Air France jet that went down in bad weather over the Atlantic.  We may never fully know what happened there.  These thoughts lead me to remember times when we had to deal with stormy weather surrounding space flight.

My last assignment as Ascent/Entry Flight Director for the space shuttle was for STS-113 in the fall of 2002.  It was a memorable flight, several technical delays and then a spectacularly successful mission to the International Space Station.  Of course you remember the one day we delayed for weather, don’t you?  I certainly remember because it is etched in my memory.

Obviously we must have good weather to launch.  Florida is lightning capital of North America; afternoon thunderstorms are typical, changing winds are to be expected, clouds and low visibility are normal.  But some of the Florida days are crystal clear blue with light winds and we really like to take advantage of those days to launch.  Except I had to scrub for weather on a beautiful Florida fall day.

The shuttle rules are based on the principle that something might go wrong during the launch phase and the crew should have a fighting chance of landing somewhere with reasonable weather.  To ensure that, the flight rules are long, arcane, and tedious, and make the Weather Officer watch not just the Florida weather, but weather at landing fields all up the east coast of North America, from South Carolina to Canada; then weather in the British Isles, Spain, Morocco, a little African country called The Gambia, Greece, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Diego Garcia, Hawaii, and whew, back home to the mainland where California and New Mexico have abort landing sites.  Weather doesn’t have to be good everywhere — that is impossible — but there are categories where at least one of a group of nearby runways must have good weather.  Otherwise, the rules call for the Flight Director to call for a scrub.

The trickiest abort is the Return to Launch Site (RTLS).  Weather must be good at the Shuttle Landing Facility, about 5 miles west of the launch pad, and here is the tricky part – 20 to 30 minutes after launch.  As Yogi Berra observed:  “Forecasts are difficult, especially about the future.”

All of these weather related Flight Rules and their associated Launch Commit Criteria have been on the books for years, approved by senior NASA management, and refined with the latest meterological understanding and tools.

In spite of the complex abort landing site weather rules, if the weather in Florida is good for both launch and RTLS, it has been very rare to scrub a launch for bad weather at the other abort landing sites. 

On that beautiful fall day in Florida, with the crew on board and the tank full of gas, both landing sites in Spain had thunderstorms at the field with strong winds, precipitation, and – worst of all – lightning.  The shuttle is particularly vulnerable to lightning.  So I had to call for a scrub.  No-Go for TAL weather. 

For all the dignitaries and senior NASA officials at the viewing stands in Florida, this was a serious disappointment.  Cooler heads would recognize that this was a good decision, but some were clearly wondering what the stupid Ascent Flight Director was thinking — weather is perfect for a launch in Florida — why do we care about Spain? 

Having been around the block a few times, I was well aware of the buzz that was probably developing a thousand miles east of Mission Control.  But, better to scrub a day for safety than to put the crew in a bad situation.  If a TAL abort occurred and the weather caused a bad day at the runway, nobody would ever forget it; especially me.

One thing I have never understood.  Some of my co-workers bide their time for the day they reach NASA retirement age, and say that they will tell their management what they really think when they have a pension in hand and can walk out the door safely.  Worrying that telling the boss the truth has never been part of my make up.  If they don’t like the truth, too bad.  I’ve rarely had a boss at NASA take my truth telling in a bad way.  This weekend, I reach the magic NASA retirement age.  Will it make any difference in my outspokenness?  I doubt it, but we’ll see.

Now, from time to time, NASA is blessed with retired military flag officers.  Admirals and Generals who have ably served their country for many years achieve military retirement age and come back for a second career on the civilian side of the government.  Often these folks provide capable leadership and invaluable knowledge.  Sometimes, these folks merely occupy a square on the org chart and never understand what we do or how we do it, and we must find ways to work around them.  On rare occasions, one of these retired military officers takes it on himself to become the drill instructor to NASA to mold us into a different, more military culture.

After the launch was scrubbed, I had a call from one of those retired flag officers who just happened to recently come into my chain of command.  At rather high decibel levels I heard all about the all weather capabilities of current military fighter aircraft.  I heard all about how badly delaying schedules hurts the program.  I heard all about how a good leader would have made a better judgement call and proceeded to launch.  On and on.

After I hung up the phone I thought about how little he understood our work.  How vulnerable and fragile are our spacecraft.  And how much care is required to fly safely in space.  Sometimes it is not a popularity contest, and you just have to accept that.



15 thoughts on “Stormy Weather”

  1. What a concept, retirement age. No such thing in the private sector. Many people have to come out of retirement when the stock market crashes or inflation erases their nest egg, so no-one can ever tell management what they think. NASA has its good points.

  2. ” How vulnerable and fragile are our spacecraft.”

    True, very true.

    “I heard all about how badly delaying schedules hurts the program.”

    Didn’t this military moron hear about STS-51L and the consequences of NOT delaying its launch??!!!

    NASA didn’t fly for over two years after losing Challenger and her crew; and lost another two years after losing Columbia and her crew.

    Send ’em packing, Wayne, and if they don’t like it, send them my way!
    I’ll back delays for safety in a New York second!

  3. Will it ever become safe, routine? Can it ever? Obviously the retired flag officer didn’t have a clue about the current state of the art. But will it ever become as safe as let’s say flying a bomber or navigating a submarine?

  4. Wayne-

    First, kudos to you for standing your ground and making the correct decision for the safety of the crew and the Shuttle program.

    Second, it is profoundly disturbing to me when I hear of that kind of reaction from senior NASA staff. Both the Challenger investigation and the CAIB pointed out issues with the NASA culture about flying the schedule. Certainly, this event occurred before STS-107, but it makes me wonder…is there still aflawed culture at NASA, driven by former “take charge” flag officers or civil servants so ensconced in their jobs that they become blind to the value of integrity, openness, and honesty?

    Recently, I have been following the progress of a launch alternative called Direct on the NASASpaceflight forum. The fact that there are NASA and contractor employees who are assisting with this grass roots effort and fear for their jobs if their involvement become known adds more credence to the fear issue.

    W. Edwards Deming had “Drive out Fear” as one of his famous 14 points. This tenent is as true today as ever. I just hope more NASA employees are willing to speak their mind and not wait until the pension checks are in their hands.

    They owe it to their country and to all of us who are taxpayers.

  5. I would have posted him (or her) a copy of the Launch Commit Criteria with the bit about TAL weather highlighted and suggested he go form a committee to go change the flight rules and wish him (or her) good luck and have a nice day.

  6. Someone I used to work with used to get phone calls like that.
    he got one once and got fed up the tirade so put the handset in the desk drawer and did something else, got distracted by what he was doing and forgot about the phone call, about half an hour latter he remembered, opened the desk drawer and the other person was still at full throttle, so he just put the handset down.
    As far as I know he never got a similar phone call.

  7. Wayne,

    In my experience as a soldier, it is always those who are not “in the trenches” making the loudest of protests as to why events are not going as “planned”, in your case, “scheduled.”

    You did the right thing, and you have an entire nation behind you. I am glad to see you can sleep at night, knowing with certainty, that you made the right decision. You put lives first, above the hardware and money spent, and that should always be the precedent in exploration, especially when going into Space. You all make it “look” easy, but I am certain, space travel and the preparations to get there aren’t.

    Keep up the good work!

  8. The best employee I ever had was a maintenance worker named Eddie Reis back when I was a plant engineer at a manufacturing company. He would never hesitate to tell me exactly what he thought, sometimes throwing his hat on the ground for effect when he disagreed with one of my decisions. The key is that he would do this privately, and would support me 100% publicly. It also didn’t hurt that his arguments were well thought out and based on facts and decades of experience. I miss him terribly. He retired at age 75 and died a couple of months later.

    -Joe Fitzgerald, Boston, MA

  9. Keep up the good work on getting people comfortable speaking a dissenting opinion. You and John Shannon are making a difference at NASA in this area. I tended to speak my dissent at NASA and it certainly didn’t help my career.

  10. Obviously the retired military flag officer possesed absolutely no respect for your position, nor an understanding of your position, it’s job description and attendant responsibilities, or a combination of both! YIKES!! How in the heck did that gentleman ever make it to flag-rank to begin with??

    It disturbs and flabberghasts me to know that this sort of person had the gall and nerve to place such a call like this, and hopefully he does not reside in the Org Chart any longer….

  11. Thanks for your candor. Another bothersome aspect of waiting till it’s “safe” to tell it like it is — is that misconceptions and poor judgement don’t get challenged that way. Why not speak up when it can do some good?

    That said, I hope you manage to stay out of trouble and stick around. 🙂

  12. Wayne,
    As the TAL forecaster who made the “No Go” forecasts for STS-113 I must thank you for making my job that day easier. No one likes to be responsible for causing a launch scrub and you made it clear to me after the dust settled that the right decision had been made that day.
    I recently retired so I no longer have to worry about the weather in Spain. Congratulations on becoming retirement eligible yourself. It was a pleasure working with you over the years. Keep sharing these great stories.

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