How an LWO and his team guided a Minotaur IV rocket out of the labyrinth

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Zoe Thacker
  • 45th Space Wing Public Affairs

What does a rocket never before launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, unfavorable weather conditions and a launch pad with a dry spell of over 15 years have in common? A seven-man weather team from the 45th Space Wing, led by Mr. David Craft, launch weather officer and retired airman.

The preparation, problem-solving and teamwork, which led to the launch on Aug. 26, 2017 of Orbital Alliant Techsystems’s Minotaur IV rocket, was an effort harnessed by all Airmen of the 45th Space Wing. However, no group of people may have been feeling the pressure more than that seven-man team of civilian, enlisted and officer Airmen from the 45th Weather Squadron.

The launch date grew closer and the threat of harsh weather and lightning conditions loomed as Craft and his team prepared to weather the storm.

“In July and August, we had daily lightning activity,” said Craft. “In order to launch, we needed zero percent probability of lightning. On the day of launch, we not only had typical lightning conditions for Florida in August, but we had a tropical disturbance over the state that was only looking to intensify in the hours leading up to the launch.”

The launch customer, Orbital ATK, asked to be provided with at least a three-hour window of zero percent lightning conditions – a request that Craft explained was almost impossible.

“Knowing the launch customer was new on the Eastern Range, I gave them an alternative, and we worked it together as a team,” Craft said. “We knew for a fact that we weren't going to sacrifice the safety of our range, our team or the customer. Even though I understood the customer's need to launch, the best alternative I could offer at that point was an hour of fair weather at a time."

With Thor raining thunder and lightning from above, there was considerable talk that the launch would not go. So now, it seemed like all that could be done was wait for more favorable weather conditions, wait for an hour free of lightning and wait for the go ahead.

However, Craft and his team did not just sit at their desks twiddling their thumbs. They persevered. The team searched for windows of clear skies, even if just for an hour. They tracked the movement of the tropical depression moving across the state. The weather squadron kept the launch in their sights and refused to sacrifice the safety of the team, the range or the hardware being launched just to make a deadline.

“I had to make several decisions with the information my team provided to me to push that launch, to move that window,” said Craft. “Safety is our first concern.”

The team provided continuous support and observation updates to the customer, as well as range officials, on the not so sunny "Sunshine State." Eventually, as the lightning moved away from CCAFS, a clear window was established in the early hours of that August morning, and all lightning warnings were terminated.

At 2:04 a.m. Craft and his team gave the go ahead, and the Minotaur IV made its inaugural launch from the Eastern Range. The rocket sprang from Pad 46 with no complications, and all who were watching on the Space Coast, especially the weather team, began cheering.

“The Minotaur was my first launch on console as a certified LWO. It was exciting for so many reasons,” said Capt. David Myers, a 45th Weather Squadron LWO. “There was so much talk that maybe it wouldn’t go, but when you see the rocket liftoff and know the payload was delivered without any issues, that makes all the stress and the waiting worth it.”

The fact that the mission was carried out with no strain put on the safety of his team, the launch customer or the Eastern Range, was what made all the efforts worth it for Craft.

“Something I always kept in the back of my mind during the hours leading up to the Minotaur launch was the last line of the Airman’s Creed,” said Craft. “I will never falter, and I will not fail, is a lifestyle in the military. When I say that I won’t fail in this particular case, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to sacrifice safety and put my team or mission in harm’s way at all costs. It means that we’re going to push forward with all of our ability to provide a safe launch opportunity.”

Craft and his team treat every launch like that of the Minotaur IV last August – exhibiting careful preparation, following safety guidelines and holding firm as a weather team to the training they’ve received to carry out the mission in a safe manner. 

“Mr. Craft is the kind of leader that commends his team before commending himself for anything,” said Myers. “I don’t believe there was any surprise when it came to his leadership on the launch of the Minotaur. The stipulations – the weather, the pad, the launch window – there was no better fit for a leader than Mr. Craft. His excellent leadership and support of his team had been established long before that launch, and it’ll continue on into the future."