The sound rattles houses and the light fills the sky: the liftoff of an Atlas V rocket from the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The first Atlas V launch was back in 2002 and since then, the rocket has delivered 19 national security missions, eight science and exploration satellites, three commercial flights and two resupply missions to the International Space Station. To get these rockets into space, it takes a team of meteorologists at Vandenberg Air Force Base called the Launch Weather Team. “Meteorology is critical. As a launch with an officer, we are one of the three entities that can call a go or no go,” said Capt. Ross Malugani, a meteorologist with the United States Air Force. The team is responsible for keeping an eye on weather not just near the ground, but in the upper atmosphere along the flight path. “We’re monitoring it up to three days before, 24 hours a day, making sure that everything is ready and green for launch to ensure safe passage of not only the rocket but also delivery of the payload,” Malugani said. Data comes from sources ranging from other military installations to the National Weather Service, but most importantly from their own instruments used on base such as weather balloons. “We release balloons from that building outside and they’re on a schedule determined by the lead launch weather officer,” said Master Sgt. Kimberly Sims, who is the Weather Flight Chief. On a normal day, only two of the huge balloons are launched and when there’s a mission, that number can go up to five, ten, or even more. Once released, the balloon soars up into the sky carrying different instruments that record temperature, wind direction, and wind speed every 100 feet. Measurements are taken from the ground all the way up to the edge of space where the balloon finally bursts. “So the balloon can go, as far as I’ve seen so far, up over 100,000 feet,” Sims said. Then, the instrument pack makes its way back down with the aid of a parachute. “It comes back down, the balloon will probably be in pieces. It may or may not still be attached to it,” said Sims. The meteorologists study and analyze the data collected from the balloon, which helps determine if the launch will happen on time, be delayed or even scrubbed. Sometimes the Launch Weather Team will send up an extra balloon if something breaks off the rocket or it explodes. “Wind direction and speed specifically for any toxic fumes or any gases that are released into the atmosphere in the event of an accident like that so that we can prepare the public and the base for anything that we’re expecting to come from that,” Sims said. Launch days are busy for the meteorologists at Vandenberg Air Force, but it’s not the only adventurous duty they see. “Anywhere there’s an air field we can go and we support a variety of missions from the army infantry on the ground, jumpers, fighter jets, bombers, heavy aircraft and as we’re doing here, space launch and ballistic missile defense,” Malugani said. At the end of the day, each team member knows he or she is making a difference every single day.
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