PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Across the nation, people heard and read news reports that Space Shuttle Discovery was on its cross-country trek home from Edwards AFB, Calif. to Kennedy Space Center. It is somewhat of a novelty to see a space shuttle "piggybacking" across the country on a huge Boeing 747 aircraft.
What Americans didn’t hear or read in the news was the huge Air Force involvement in such a critical mission.
Capt. Clif Stargardt and 2nd Lt. Barry Hunte, 45th Weather Squadron, made up the traveling weather support team for the ferry flight and held the undivided attention of NASA’s flight management team last week.
"They listened to what we had to say and based potentially billion dollar decisions on us being right," said Stargardt of the high-profile responsibility. "If we’re wrong, there’s going to be some serious damage to a beautiful spacecraft."
The task of bringing the orbiter home, in terms of weather, is very intricate. There are seven extremely strict weather constraints for a ferry flight that can turn a seemingly simple flight across the country into a meandering obstacle for the 747 and Shuttle three miles above the ground.
Constraints include no flight through clouds; no flight in air cooler than 15 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 degree Celsius); no flight in air with an ambient pressure less than eight pounds per square inch (that’s a 16,000 foot floor); no flight at night; no flight within 25 nautical miles of thunderstorms; no flight through moderate or greater turbulence; and finally, there can be no precipitation greater than "light" at overnight stopping points.
"The weather in the west and Midwest was very tricky," Hunte said. "A cold front formed and extended completely across the Midwest. It was extremely difficult to find a way across the frontal system."
The weather duo faced several challenges in forecasting the orbiter’s flight path home. First, there was a tremendous storm system in the central part of the country threatening to cut off the route between Texas and Florida. Second, there were delays in getting the orbiter prepared for the flight, which started to limit the options of landing facilities with good weather. Third, a second system was projected to form, bringing heavy rain and thunderstorms to a couple of potential stopover points. Lastly, unexpected thunderstorms developed over Georgia during the last leg of the trip … exactly where the route would take them.
Overcoming these challenges was dependent on a satellite communication system known as Track II. This system enabled the weather team to transmit near real-time messages and image files.
"The ‘home’ team Range Weather Operations [at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station] kept us apprised of the situation via Track II and we were able to change flight routes early and avoid the [Georgia] area altogether," Stargardt said.
Stargardt and Hunte led the way for the modified 747 aboard an Air Force C-141 known as Pathfinder. The aircraft flies approximately 100 miles ahead of the orbiter and advises the air crew on the best route to avoid bad weather.
People at Altus AFB, Okla. and Whiteman AFB, Mo. played key roles in bringing Discovery home. Both served as stopover points along the route home and provided important support functions for the ferry flight team.
According to Stargardt, the base weather stations leaned forward to assist them and made all ferry flight requests their top priority. The weather personnel proved to be a breath of fresh air for the two travel-weary meteorologists.
"When a maintenance issue with the Pathfinder aircraft came up, the folks at Altus were ready to work another C-141 for us in about an hour if we had needed it,* Stargardt said. *Whiteman had billeting and cars waiting for us at base operations right when we stepped off the plane.*
He added that the Department of Defense Manned Spaceflight Support Office, based at Patrick is an essential link for all NASA missions, including the ferry flight. When the C-141 Pathfinder was grounded at Whiteman AFB, two DDMS landing support officers in Houston, Texas, worked through the night to secure another aircraft for Pathfinder support the next day.
Both Stargardt and Hunte said the unique ferry flight mission is one of the most important roles any Air Force weather officer could ever play.
"It is great knowing that your job and your abilities make the difference in bringing a space shuttle home safely," Hunte said.
"Before I came here [to Patrick] one of the things on my ‘Life’s To Do List’ was to see a shuttle launch," explained Stargardt. "Now I’m part of it all. I’m a kid living in a dream!"