As NASA ends an era with the final launch of space shuttle Atlantis, nearly 30 years of human spaceflight and aeronautics will be examined. One important aspect of rocket launches is weather, especially when it comes to risking human lives in the name of science.
Here's a look at some concepts of weather as they pertain to NASA's space shuttle program.
The space shuttle could suffer major malfunctions if it were struck by lightning. As such, many precautions are taken with the orbiter and its boosters if lightning is detected in the area. The U.S. Air Force provides real-time data as to weather conditions at the time of launch.
Lightning rods are all over the Kennedy Space Center, including one on the launch pad to protect the rocket as it awaits launch. Lightning strikes the launch pad about five times per year.
The Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff Jan. 28, 1986. The cause was determined to be a failure of o-shaped rings that join the solid rocket boosters together from top to bottom. The booster on the right side leaked explosive gas because the sealed ring was too cold.
The problem with the launch was that one side of the shuttle was too cold. The solid rocket booster that malfunctioned was in shadow most of the morning. One side of the booster was 50 degrees in the sun, while the other was below freezing. As such, the rubber o-ring malfunctioned and caused the massive hydrogen gas tank to explode in-flight.
Taking off in a rocket during bad weather is not a good idea. Landings can also be delayed from bad weather but there is a limit to the amount of time a crew can spend in outer space. Eventually, food and oxygen will run out if the shuttle doesn't land.
As such, there are three landing sites selected for shuttle missions. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida offers one landing strip. Edwards Air Force Base in California is another. A third, and less-used site is at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico. If the original landing site is unavailable, one of the other two sites can be used as a backup.
The space shuttle program has come to an end after 30 years of valuable service to all mankind. Weather has been a major factor in the program as scientists and engineers have found unique ways to understand how weather works as it relates to human spaceflight.