They are meticulous. Any disturbance — a misplaced step, exposure to the wrong air molecules, an uncontrollable sneeze — has the potential to leave the United States, and the rest of the world for that matter, without critical weather observations that save lives.
If it successfully launches in November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite will monitor things like hurricanes and blizzards from space with higher resolution than any other U.S. satellite of its kind. It will be a game-changer for weather forecasting.
“Up. Up. Up,” says the crane operator, breaking the otherwise silent focus of the room.
The lid rises like a shoe box to reveal the satellite — called GOES-R — on its side and mounted to the container base. Once all of the white-clad specialists are certain the bottom of the lid has cleared the top of the satellite, the operator shifts the crane to the left.
“Going south,” he announces. With ropes attached to each corner, they guide the lid to the opposite side of the airlock.
Their first task is complete, but there are many more to come, and the stakes could not be higher.
The satellite’s journey began 24 hours earlier in Denver. Mounted on a specialized semi-truck, it was loaded into the cargo hold of a U.S. Air Force C5-M Galaxy through the nose of the aircraft.
The dark morning was chilly, but the tarmac at Buckley Air Force Base warmed up quickly as the sun rose above the horizon. It was early, but the energy was palpable.
I arrived with two dozen Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians, safety specialists and quality assurance experts at 4:45 a.m., to transport NOAA’s next major weather satellite to Kennedy Space Center. It’s the project this team has been tirelessly working on for more than two years, and they want to see it fly.
Their final product is a towering monument of technology. GOES-R is the size of a small school bus. It weighs about 6,300 pounds. Transporting the behemoth is a challenge, but it needs to get to Florida. It is scheduled to be launched into space on Nov. 4.
Lockheed secured GOES-R in a box the size of an RV. Super-pure air circulated through the storage container. The satellite’s air is purer than what scuba divers breathe. The spacecraft cannot come in contact with any Earthly substance now; the touch of a bare fingertip could contaminate it.
The mobile clean room was hoisted onto Lockheed’s custom-built tractor-trailer named Eagle, designed specifically for hauling spacecraft. It carries the gas needed to maintain pure air in the container. The hydraulics on Eagle keep the container level, even when the truck is driving on an incline — say, when it is being loaded onto a C-5.
The fit was snug — we had to walk over tie-down chains and scurry across ledges to get from the front of the plane to the back — but the entire semi-truck and massive pieces of mounting equipment were strapped down for the ride.
The C-5M Galaxy is a hulking aircraft. The Air Force has used its C-5 fleet for heavy-duty hauling since 1969. Sometimes the planes transport spacecraft; other times they move supplies to and from the Middle East.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s peacetime or wartime, we stay busy,” our pilot, Capt. Paul Jaskewicz, told me as he listened to air traffic control in the background. We crossed into Memphis airspace and were asked to adjust altitude. A small twist of a knob and it was done.
Jaskewicz has a master’s degree in aeronautical science and has been in the U.S. Air Force since 2006. We chatted about his career, and he told me he hopes to work for a commercial airline when his service is complete. Piloting a C-5 and instructing midair refueling courses should qualify him.
Jaskewicz said this mission was on the heavy side. At 31,000 feet, we were hauling 130,000 pounds of semi-truck, satellite and equipment, which brought the total aircraft weight to 740,000 pounds.
I heard another crew member from the passenger cabin through my headset. Lockheed Martin had a request — the air coming out of the ducts in the cargo hold was too hot. They needed to turn the temperature down.
To get to the passenger cabin, we had to climb a precariously steep ladder, which made me reevaluate some of the heavier items I crammed into my backpack. It was dark and there were only two windows, which was fine by these passengers who had a 3 a.m. wake-up call.
Airmen in green flight suits served as flight attendants. We didn’t anticipate needing life jackets, one airman assured us, but this is how to inflate them. The seat belts are operated like so, he demonstrated. “It’s pretty much the same as a commercial aircraft.”
Pretty much, except for the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that wafted down the aisle halfway through the flight, and the multimillion-dollar spacecraft strapped down under our feet.
Meteorologists have been waiting anxiously for GOES-R since late 2007, when NOAA began to award contracts for the project. The three satellites that currently monitor U.S. weather are reaching the end of their life span. Should one of these satellites fail, NOAA would be without a backup. If two fail, the United States would be missing critical weather data.
The GOES-R satellite has six instruments, two of which are weather-related. The Advanced Baseline Imager, developed by Harris Corp., is the “camera” that looks down on Earth. The pictures it sends back will be clearer and more detailed than what’s created by the current satellites.
The ABI can scan half the Earth — or the “full disk” — in five minutes. If forecasters want to home in on an area of severe weather, it can scan that region every 30 seconds. Weather radars can’t even scan faster than six minutes.
The other weather instrument, the Global Lightning Mapper, will continuously track and transmit all lightning strikes across North America and its surrounding oceans. Developed by Lockheed, it can detect the changes in light on Earth and thus the rate and intensity of lightning in thunderstorms and hurricanes.
Sudden increases in lightning activity within thunderstorms — which the lightning mapper will detect — often signal that they are becoming severe and violent.
All of the data from these instruments will be fed into models to improve weather forecasts. It could extend the lead time of tornado warnings and predict the location of flash flooding before it begins.
In other words, these instruments will save more lives.
Three hours after takeoff from Buckley, we landed at Kennedy Space Center on the same runway the Space Shuttles used until the program was discontinued in 2011. The C-5 crawled to a stop a few acres from NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building, which was constructed in 1966 to build the Saturn series of rockets. They would later launch the Apollo missions into space.
It would be hard not to consider, at least for a moment, the magnitude of the events that unfolded here over the decades. NASA put men on the moon.
The Kennedy tarmac was blazing hot. It was 95 degrees and the humidity was oppressive. We were wearing Day-Glo polyester safety vests. They’re visible from a mile away, but do nothing for personal ventilation. The Air Force crew were sweating through their full green jumpsuits.
The nose of the C-5 opened like the hood of a car to reveal the cargo hold. The ramp lowered to the ground and the team carefully offloaded some of the equipment. Then it was time for GOES-R.
The truck named Eagle was painstakingly backed into the cargo bay in Denver, which made the afternoon’s task marginally easier. All they needed to do was drive Eagle down a ramp and out of the aircraft — how hard could it possibly be?
The operation began around 5 p.m. and didn’t conclude until 7 p.m. For two hours, we baked in the Florida sun while directing GOES-R onto the tarmac. When it was over, the truck had moved no more than 200 feet.
Later in the evening, Eagle carried GOES-R to Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, where it was unloaded into the last building it will ever be in before it is launched.
Amanda Kindblad downed a Red Bull on her way to the clean room second shift. “I also had coffee this morning,” the 30-year-old from Valencia, Calif., assures me.
The only way I can tell her apart from everyone else in the room is her strikingly light gray eyes — the sole feature visible through her clean-room suit.
Kindblad is a senior specialist technician for Lockheed. She was my neighbor on the early-morning flight from Denver the day before. She will live in Florida for three months while they prep and test.
We’re sitting across from one another with a dividing rope between us. We’re both wearing white clean suits, but Kindblad’s is more technical and it covers her face. That’s why she’s sitting on the satellite side of the divider and I’m not.
“I love our launches, even though you’re far away from home for a while,” she tells me. “It’s like a little family. I see these guys more than my own family.”
It’s Kindblad’s third launch campaign. Until now, she has mainly worked on commercial military communications and satellites. She has an airframe and power plant license, which the FAA requires for anyone performing aircraft maintenance. Hired right out of college, she has been with Lockheed for eight years.
“I’m what’s known as a blanket lady,” Kindblad says casually. “There’s only two of us.”
She points to the upright satellite, which is covered in a protective material that looks a lot like tinfoil. “You see how everything on the outside is covered?” she asks. “That’s one of my specialties. They call them ‘garbage bags,’ but it’s MLI — multi-layer insulation.”
It’s the last but possibly the most important thing that goes on the satellite. It protects the instruments from the harmful radiation of space. “That’s the reason they wanted me on this project, for that work,” Kindblad tells me. She loves her job.
Behind her, I watch white figures crawl all around the spacecraft to check and double-check every bolt before moving on to the next step. My imagination runs away with visions of a slip or a dropped wrench. After all, these white figures are only human.
“Everyone has to be very close to the spacecraft for the things that we’re doing,” Jeffrey Coyne says. He’s the assembly, test and launch operations manager for GOES-R. “You have to make sure that you know where every part of you is.”
He chuckles at the mildly irritated rumblings among our non-Lockheed group about the progress speed. “Yeah, it doesn’t move fast here,” Coyne says, smiling. “But that’s intentional.”
The strict, step-by-step, checked and rechecked process exists for a good reason — enormously expensive mishaps can occur without it. Lockheed faced this reality in 2003 when a NOAA satellite slid off its mount and fell to the floor as engineers attempted to move it into the vertical position.
A NASA investigation concluded that the accident happened because a technician removed the 24 bolts that secured the satellite to the mounting plate without logging the action, and the technicians who executed the adjustment failed to check that the bolts were in place.
The mishap severely damaged the spacecraft and cost the project a significant delay and $135 million — a price shared by Lockheed Martin and NOAA.
In the Astrotech airlock, GOES-R program manager Tim Gasparrini is cautiously confident.
“We won’t know until we run through inspection and do all the electrical testing if the spacecraft made it safely,” Gasparrini admits when I ask him if he thinks everything went well. A fleeting moment of hesitation passes. “But you know, it’s designed to, so we don’t have any worries,” he added.
GOES-R has months of testing ahead of it in preparation for the Nov. 4 launch. The Lockheed team will clean the instruments and check that the spacecraft itself is in good health — its engine and thrusters need to get the satellite into orbit once it reaches space.
Lockheed Martin, Harris and the other companies and organizations that developed components on GOES-R are in the process of creating three more satellites just like it. To complete the next-generation satellite constellation, GOES-S and GOES-T are slated for launch in 2018 and 2019, respectively. GOES-U is expected to launch in 2024.
If the spacecraft clears its tests and the November launch is successful, GOES-R will be transmitting the best satellite data NOAA has ever had by late 2017.
Better weather forecasts are just around the corner.