The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing’s first all female weather team (from left to right): Melody Lovin, Hanna Mulcahey, Arlena Moses, Maj. Emily Graves, Jessica Williams, Capt. Nancy Zimmerman.
SpaceX has become well-known for trailblazing new firsts for the space industry but, when the rocket company launches its next mission, it will be the U.S. Air Force’s weather forecasting team that makes history.
For the first time, all six members of the 45th’s Space Wing’s launch weather team are female. The Air Force team has made critical decisions for hundreds of rocket launches, always with at least one man among their ranks. But for the next SpaceX launch scheduled for Saturday morning, these six women will decide if the weather is clear: Major Emily Graves, Captain Nancy Zimmerman, Airman first class Hannah Mulcahey, Arlena Moses, Melody Lovin and Jessica Williams.
“It’s a testament to how far we’ve come, in the space industry and the Air Force,” Zimmerman, the 45th Space Wing’s launch weather director, told CNBC. “Looking back into the 50s and 60s, that was 100% male dominated … then slowly but surely we’ve started introducing more females into the space industry.”
45th Space Wing’s launch weather director Capt. Nancy Zimmerman.
The journey to this point has been different for each member of the team but all six emphasized that they hope it can serve as an inspiration to other women. Moses, the 45th Space Wing’s lead launch weather officer, said that especially “as a person of color, there are a lot of preconceived notions about who you are and what you can do and what you’re capable of.”
“Oftentimes, as a female and as a person of color, you have to work a little harder to show them that you can stand toe-to-toe with everybody else,” Moses said.
45th Space Wing’s lead launch weather officer Arlena Moses.
This group of women has a critical job in supporting rocket launches, as they decide whether the often volatile weather near Florida’s “Space Coast” is clear for liftoff. In addition to being scientists, all six women must have a clear understanding of the myriad of different weather combinations that can “scrub” a launch. Scrub is how the industry describes a “no go” call that postpones a launch.
“My favorite part honestly is when there’s a lot of weather going on,” the 45th’s launch weather commander Graves told CNBC. “Then it’s a busy launch and we get to make a call, going from a ‘no go’ back to a ‘go’ status. It’s a busy and intense moment, like this really long sprint that we’re all doing together and we’re all in sync and it just feels like you’re saving the world.”
45th Space Wing’s launch weather commander Maj. Emily Graves.
CNBC / Michael Sheetz
Graves oversees the weather team, acting as a liaison between them and senior Air Force leadership during the mission. Zimmerman explained that the weather team has a twofold mission, supporting operations on the ground by communicating how weather could damage assets and then providing logistical support “through all stages of the launches,” she said. That includes three broad stages, which the 45th Space Wing categorizes as generation, execution and recovery.
“We provide weather support for the [SpaceX] barges to go out and recover those rocket parts,” Zimmerman said.
The landed Falcon 9 rocket booster from SpaceX’s Demo-2 crewed mission returns to Port Canaveral in Florida.
The 45th Space Wing is stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida and manages the Eastern Range: A designated U.S. rocket range for launches from either NASA’s Kennedy Space Center or the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Weather is a big deal for rockets and the region is known as the lightning capital of the world, making the 45th Space Wing’s job particularly difficult.
“About 50% of all scrubs are due to weather,” Zimmerman said.
The impact of weather on 416 launches over more than 30 years.
CNBC / Michael Sheetz
While the weather team issues forecasts and monitors conditions days in advance of a launch, a scrub can happen in the final moments of the countdown to lift off. Graves noted that, for the recent SpaceX crewed launch, the 45th Space Wing can make a “no go” call due to a change in weather as late as five seconds before launch.
“We’re all scientists and a lot of times, in order to get everybody on the scene clear and convinced [about the weather,] it means we’re having a lot of scientific discussion about where we are and how we think about what we’re seeing in terms of different weather,” Moses said.
Williams, who serves as the 45th Space Wing’s radar launch weather officer, explained that her role entails surveying through radar scans of precipitation.
“We are digging into every single scan every three minutes and looking at how far each cloud edge is from the flight path and how tall each cloud is and how thick that cloud is, to evaluate the different weather launch commit criteria,” Williams said.
The launch commit criteria is essentially a set of 10 weather rules the Air Force has pre-established to determine whether it is safe for a rocket to launch.
The launch weather rules set by the U.S. Air Force and the company operating the rocket.
CNBC / Michael Sheetz
The 10 launch weather rules set by the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing.
CNBC / Michael Sheetz
Moses then communicates between the weather squadron, the Air Force’s launch team and SpaceX’s launch team, “relaying all the weather decisions that we make,” she said.
A historic moment
The 45th Space Wing’s team in the weather control center.
Up until 2018, the 45th Space Wing weather squadron had only one female civilian launch officer, noted Lovin, the team’s reconnaissance launch weather officer. That changed when some officers left and the unit was expanded, so there are now six women and nine men on the team.
“Any little girl that’s looking up to us, I want to encourage you to pursue math and science and don’t shy away from it. There’s a lot of stereotypes out there that women are not as good in math and science and they’re just not true,” Lovin said. “I look forward to not having to celebrate when we are on an all female launch team because that means it has become so normal … and we’re not fighting an uphill battle any more.”
Zimmerman noted that last year saw NASA complete the first all-female space walk and highlighted that some of the largest space companies are now lead by women. She hopes that continues to inspire women to work in fields such as engineering or the sciences.
“If there’s any doubt in your heart and mind but you have something that you want to do, whatever [it is] within the STEM career field, just go do it,” Zimmerman said.
The six women on the team are “all weather geeks,” Moses said, and “many of us are space geeks as well.”
“The satisfaction of knowing that you helped launch a rocket is awesome,” Moses said, adding that space and weather “go hand-in-hand” for her, because she “wanted to be a meteorologist on Mars, which is not a job that exists yet.”
Williams said she too was “a space nerd as a kid,” wanting to be an astronaut before she became a meteorologist. The lack of women in her career field made it difficult at time, saying she “really had to work hard to prove myself.”
“At my previous job, I was the only female in a group of 100 in a science and engineering branch,” Williams said. “I wasn’t initially given some positions that other newcomers were initially given.”
But she pressed on, even flying into hurricanes with the famed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “Hurricane Hunters” for six years.
“It was exciting and the adrenaline rush was very high,” Williams said. “I have a small hope that I may someday get to fly high enough in a rocket to be able to see the curvature of the Earth myself.”
SpaceX is targeting Saturday at 5:21 a.m. EDT to launch its ninth batch of Starlink internet satellites. The mission will carry 58 of the company’s Starlink satellites, as well as 3 imagery satellites for Planet.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket loaded with 60 Starlink satellites stands on the company’s launchpad in Florida.
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