Launching With A Legacy -- Weather pioneer returns 60 years after historic mission

  • Published
  • By Airman Zoe Thacker
  • 45th Space Wing Public Affairs
The year was 1958. The Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit the year before, which meant the U.S. was now officially behind in the race for space.

After suffering three humbling launch setbacks, the U.S. finally had an answer to Sputnik and that answer, nestled atop a Juno rocket, was Explorer I.

The launch business was different back then. Everything was being done for the first time, like when the pioneers headed out west. But this time, the pioneers were headed north – way north. One of those pioneers was a young Air Force lieutenant, launch weather officer, John Meisenheimer.

Armed only with a desk and a telephone as his primary technological tools for forecasting, he had been following the weather closely on the morning of Jan. 29, 1958. He calculated there were jet stream winds that would make their way closer to what was then known as Florida’s Cape Canaveral Missile Annex, creating difficult conditions to launch America’s first satellite.

Fearing a possible mishap with the rocket guidance system, Meisenheimer gave a “no-go” forecast for the day, essentially canceling the launch, which meant another day without space for the U.S.

The very next day, Meisenheimer held the fate of history in his hands when the Explorer I team waited, yet again, on an “all clear” weather call. Unfortunately, the call never came as the worrisome winds continued to roll in, forcing Meisenheimer to utter the same “no-go” as he did the day before.

The morning of Jan 31, the crew held true to their faith that an opportunity to launch may present itself that day. Meisenheimer went right to work on his day’s weather calculations, which showed a late day jet stream that would push the winds away from the Cape.

Hope would then turn into reality and reality would become history, all after Meisenheimer, sitting by the telephone at his desk, gave a now historic “go” for weather. The Juno rocket was sent up, Explorer I in orbit, inspiring a nation. A nation that could once only look to the stars, now was on a course to grab them.

Fast forward to 60 years later, and Lt. Meisenheimer would now be known as Dr. Meisenheimer. He and his former colleagues would revisit the site where they made history, this time on the land renamed Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The small group gathered at Launch Complex 26 for a ceremony to commemorate their achievement, along with Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing, and Mr. Robert Cabana, Director of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center.

At this moment, on Jan 31, 2018 when the two groups came together at the place where it all began, the past officially bridged to the present.

“We may have gotten off to a bit of a fiery start in the beginning, but here we are now, leading the world with 3,568 rocket launches from the Eastern Range,” said Monteith, during the 60th Anniversary Explorer I ceremony.

Dr. Meisenheimer also took to the podium and shared his story of that day 60 years ago. Once the ceremony concluded, the Meisenheimer family was invited to view the launch from the Range (Morrell) Operations Center, where the launch countdown takes place and the home of the 45th Weather Squadron.

Just hours before liftoff of SpaceX’s GovSat-1, Meisenheimer left behind his desk and telephone from 60 years ago and walked into a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art weather facility, which was both humbling and overwhelming.

Meisenheimer said he still can’t believe the lengths that technology has advanced in the use of forecasting weather and launching rockets, which also proves the importance of weather with regard to launching rockets as well.

The 45th Space Wing team was also overwhelmed, but in a dramatically different way. They were humbled to be with a fellow LWO, the LWO who started it all for America. The team had many questions for the man that gave the “go-ahead” for that very first mission, and Dr. Meisenheimer was happy to share that story once again and impart some of his meteorological wisdom as well.

The story ended, and the countdown clock was ticking away.

Meisenheimer thought he was just getting a launch day tour, but the wing had other plans. The 45th Space Wing planned to put him to work and give him an opportunity to call it in one more time on launch day.

Dr. Meisenheimer was handed a headset and given the green light to take over as the mission’s LWO, and give the “go” for weather during the final launch poll for GovSat-1.

Sitting back in the chair, the 45th Space Wing weather team and his family around him, Dr. Meisenheimer, LWO for America’s first successful satellite mission, said, “LWO has you loud and clear.”

The poll came around and Meiseheimer gave the range a “go” for weather one more time, bringing that day 60 years ago, full circle with this day in 2018.

“Today was a good day,” concluded Meisenheimer.