Vandenberg AFB weather launch officer explains how weather conditions impact launches

Posted at 6:13 PM, May 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-29 22:40:24-04

The historic launch of a Falcon 9 rocket that will send two astronauts into space is scheduled to lift off Saturday at 3:22 p.m. ET from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The launch was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but was ultimately scrubbed due to weather conditions. The mission, known as SpaceX Demo-2, will be delivering astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station.

As spectators get ready to watch the SpaceX and NASA launch earth-side, it's all dependent on the weather.

KSBY spoke with a weather launch officer at Vandenberg Air Force Base to get a better understanding about what conditions can generally impact a launch.

"All of our launches are based off customer requirements and range requirements and how weather impacts those is a variety of measures. So we have constraints, anything from temperature, precipitation, wind, what have you, so whatever the customers are requiring," said Captain Daniel Smith, a weather launch officer at VAFB.

While Smith says the ideal weather would include clear skies, mild winds, and temperatures in the 70s, that's not always what they get.

"Weather is a vital part of the launch, and the launch weather officers on each of the ranges, our main job is to make sure we review those materials, those requirements to keep the range safe, those launch vehicles safe, and of course, the weather meets those requirements so we can have mission success," Smith said.

In terms of more severe weather, Smith says when lightning is monitored, the weather team is looking at two types: natural lightning, which is the type most are familiar with, and trigger lightning.

"Trigger lightning is when the launch vehicle and the plume are conductors that are interacting with the cloud, and although the cloud's electrical field isn't the high, the interaction between that launch vehicle and the conductors is what causes that electric spark and can help the atmosphere go back to equilibrium," Smith said.

Smith says winds are also closely monitored as it could also impact the launch of a vehicle into space. Forecasting a launch can take days, even months, according to Smith, and involves consistent forecasting leading up do launch day.

"In that forecast, we give a generalized synopsis of what is to be expected and then we include in that product probability of violation covering the concerns, the weather concerns throughout the launch, and that number that we give, senior leadership tells them in a numerical manner the likelihood of those weather constraints violating a launch scrub," Smith said. "Often times, leadership will take those numbers and still sit on console and wait until the last possible moment to make a scrub because we know weather can be fickle and you can get a break in the clouds and the customers and the range wants to use those opportunities for a mission success. We wouldn't want to scrub prematurely."

KSBY will be live streaming the NASA and SpaceX launch Saturday at 12:20 p.m. at