Nasa's Weather Detection Criticized

Posted: January 09, 1989

HOUSTON — Despite new restrictions requiring that the space shuttle be launched only in near-perfect weather, the head of an outside panel that reviewed NASA's weather-detection systems says the agency continues to take unnecessary risks.

NASA's weather equipment is outdated and inadequate, according to Charles L. Hosler, a Penn State University meteorology professor who headed a National Research Council panel that studied NASA's weather-prediction capability.

"It's horse-and-buggy" weather prediction, Hosler said in a phone interview from Penn State last week. "At the same time, the people who know about weather who are associated with the organization are not aggressive enough" to make needed changes.

Hosler said he planned to share his concerns at a professional-society meeting of aerospace scientists and engineers tomorrow in Reno, Nev.

Hosler's complaints were echoed last week by other weather experts on the panel and by John Theon, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's weather research office.

"My own opinion is that things have proceeded too slowly for our own good," Theon said from NASA headquarters in Washington. "They are moving on it but it is at a very deliberate pace, and I think all of us who work in the area of meteorology and weather forecasting . . . would rather see them give a little more attention to implementing some recommendations."

The National Research Council, the research branch of the National Academy of Sciences, was asked by NASA to scrutinize various aspects of the nation's space program after the Challenger disaster in January 1986.

Council panels that studied the redesign of the shuttle's solid-fuel booster and NASA's new safety criteria have come away generally pleased with post-Challenger improvements. But members of the panel headed by Hosler continue to express concern over NASA's weather-detection effort and the quality of its equipment.

Specifically, the panel urged NASA to begin using a widely accepted detection system - the Doppler radar wind profiler - to study high-level wind shears and other wind conditions above the launch site at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

For 25 years, the space agency has instead relied on balloons to measure wind conditions. Because they rise relatively slowly, the balloons can report only on wind conditions existing up to an hour or more before launch time.

The weather panel also urged the space agency to equip an airplane with instruments that can measure electrical charges in clouds near the launch site. Currently, NASA relies on a new ground-based measuring system, which experts say is sophisticated but inadequate to predict devastating bolts of lightning that can be generated by a rising spacecraft.

In a report issued in July, the research council panel implied that both new types of weather-prediction equipment might have helped prevent the Challenger disaster and the destruction of an Atlas-Centaur rocket struck by lightning over the cape in March 1987.

In the case of the Challenger, the Rogers investigating commission theorized that high-level wind shears - the strongest ever encountered by a space shuttle - might have contributed to the accident by straining faulty O- ring seals on a booster rocket until they opened abnormally.

In the case of the Atlas-Centaur, research panel members said last week, Air Force meteorologists sitting in a windowless control room relied on inadequate data from ground equipment even as a lightning storm drew near to the cape. Although NASA personnel on the ground were worried about the approaching storm, the Air Force, which provides forecasting services to NASA, recommended a launch.

About 48 seconds after the Atlas-Centaur lifted off, the unmanned rocket triggered four bolts of lightning that flashed from it to the ground and disrupted its computer memory. The rocket veered out of control and had to be destroyed.

NASA officials said last week that they agreed with the recommendations of the research council panel and that they were taking steps to install new equipment and improve weather detection. But neither a Doppler wind profiler nor an airborne electrical detection system will be in place for several years. The next shuttle launch is scheduled for next month.

Col. John T. Madura, commander of Air Force weather facilities along the Florida coast, said last week that installing equipment takes time because of the complicated job of integrating it with existing weather facilities and of training personnel.

"You have to be careful how you integrate it into a decision-making process where lives and dollars are at stake," he said.

But research council members and Theon of NASA's weather research office said the NASA bureacracy simply has been too slow.

"I would ask the same question," Theon said when asked why it had taken so long to install electrical detection equipment aboard the plane that normally inspects the shuttle's flight path before launch. "I don't know why they haven't done something like that. Maybe it's a matter of resources . . . and there's also a question of turf, a reluctance to step on the Air Force's toes."

Theon also complained last week that John Ernst, director of the NASA Weather Support Office, established in December 1987, does not have "the budget or authority he needs."

Theon and other NASA officials do not believe as Hosler does that shuttle launches will be at risk until new equipment is in place. Last month, after the launch of the shuttle Atlantis was delayed by high-level wind shear, Hosler complained that NASA was playing "Russian roulette" by launching the shuttle without knowing the precise wind conditions at liftoff.

NASA officials said they did agree with Hosler that the lack of more sophisticated equipment forces NASA to adhere to very conservative weather rules - which essentially say that there can be no launch if the weather is less than perfect.

Under those rules, Kennedy Space Center launch director Robert Sieck said last week, "the number of delays and scrubs is going to increase."

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