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45th Weather Squadron wins AFSPC innovation award

The winners of the 2015 Air Force Space Command Ivan A. Getting Innovation Award, left to right, Mike McAleenan, 45th Weather Squadron, Capt. Kyle Clements, 5th Space Launch Squadron, Andrew Bradley, NASA Kennedy Space Center, and Maj. Perry Sweat (not pictured), 45th Weather Squadron, stand with the WeatherBot April 22, 2016, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo by Matthew Jurgens/Released)

The winners of the 2015 Air Force Space Command Ivan A. Getting Innovation Award, left to right, Mike McAleenan, 45th Weather Squadron, Capt. Kyle Clements, 5th Space Launch Squadron, Andrew Bradley, NASA Kennedy Space Center, and Maj. Perry Sweat (not pictured), 45th Weather Squadron, stand with the WeatherBot April 22, 2016, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo by Matthew Jurgens/Released)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --

The 45th Weather Squadron was one of two winners for the Air Force Space Command Ivan A. Getting Innovation Award for 2015.  For the award program, having two winners was a first. 

Mr. James P. Fisher, Irregular Warfare Analyst at Air Force Space Command, Peterson AFB, Colo., was the other winner of this year’s award.  

“The eight judge scoring panel independently assesses each package.  They are judged by their merit, not against each other.” said Lt. Col. Galen Ojala, Deputy Director, AFSPC Commander’s Action Group.  “This year we had two excellent examples to inspire us and it resulted in a tie.”

The award recognizes the year’s most innovative contribution to the AFSPC mission and is named after Dr. Ivan A. Getting, a space pioneer recognized in the Space and Missile Hall of Fame for his creative work in navigational technology and vital work in the development of GPS.  The award is given to an AFSPC individual or team, to include military and civilian retirees, and contractors, who are evaluated on four key factors: novelty, effectiveness, significance and transferability.  

“Airmen like Mr. James Fisher and those in the 45th Weather Squadron are ensuring our ability to execute Air Force Space Command's missions and to provide winning effects downrange. They are doing it by taking the initiative -- innovating, experimenting, prototyping and ultimately delivering important capabilities,” said General John E. Hyten, Air Force Space Command Commander. “I’m very proud of their passion, ingenuity and resourcefulness; they give our Armed Forces an edge they can rely on.” 

According to Ojala, the 45th Weather Squadron expertly collaborated to successfully build and test the first-ever automated weather balloon release.  The weather robot allows safe release of critical upper air sensors by personnel sheltered safely indoors during hazardous weather.  The sensor data is essential to making a go / no-go decision for the continuing launch countdown.  The team capitalized on NASA robotic expertise and the US For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (USFIRST) program that engaged local high school students in the designing, building and testing the robot at no cost to the Air Force.  This system directly improves launch availability and nearly eliminates the risk of not having timely valid wind data, potentially saving $1 million per scrubbed launch attempt.

“Words cannot express how proud I am of the 45th Weather Squadron,” said Col. Shannon Klug, 45th Weather Squadron commander.  “In 2014, I challenged them to embrace a culture of innovation and they did so wholeheartedly.” 

For Mike McAleenan, 45th WS Launch Weather Officer, and his team, this award was unexpected.

“It’s a tremendous honor and a complete surprise,” McAleenan said. “I think it'll energize us all to innovate more.  And we do, as usual, have quite a few things in the queue right now.”  

“One thing we learned about innovation is that it takes a team,” Klug said.  “Some team members have creative visions but don't know how to implement them.  Other folks can be given a creative idea and can design it into reality.  The Weatherbot is the embodiment of the innovative spirit that thrives in the 45th Weather Squadron.”

Lightning is what inspired the WeatherBot.  According to McAleenan, Central Florida, including Cape Canaveral Spaceport, is the lightning capital of North America, with nearly all of the lightning occurring from mid-June to mid-September. 

“One of the most important of pre-launch activities is weather balloon releases,” said McAleenan. “Weather balloons provide winds and thermodynamic characteristics of the atmosphere and are extremely important to determine rocket guidance and critical wind stresses.”

“They also verify potential toxic plume and debris guidance as well. There are typically balloon releases about every 30 minutes during a launch countdown, with each balloon taking about an hour and a half to provide the complete data needed at the upper levels of the atmosphere,” he continued. “When there's lightning in the area of the balloon facility, people do not go outside to release the balloon for safety reasons. Even though the weather might've cleared by launch time, not having the data the weather balloon provides means the launch cannot continue, causing a very expensive launch scrub.”

According to McAleenan, this very scenario happened during a very busy launch schedule from June through September 2014, with 10 launches (and 16 launch countdowns) in the heart of lightning season. Two launches were scrubbed due to lightning preventing weather balloon releases. These scrubs prompted a call from [Captain] Kyle Clements (Atlas V Flight Commander, 5th Space Launch Squadron) for a new, innovative way to release a weather balloon without risking a human life to do so, possibly via a robotic mechanism.

“As soon as I heard robot, I knew who to call, my son Nick,” said McAleenan. He is on the PINK Team and compared to the things their robots do for USFIRST, driving a few feet and letting go of a balloon should be easy designing.”

The PINK Team is comprised of Rockledge, Cocoa Beach, Viera and Space Coast High School students, who are a part of the Kennedy Space Center-sponsored FIRST robotics software team. 

“They were immediately interested in being part of the solution to the problem plaguing the space program and tackled the problem head-on,” said McAleenan. “After visiting the balloon facility and interviewing the people who release and process the balloon data, the students and mentors had a good idea of what was needed.

“The result is a marvel of a robot,” he continued. “Sturdy, easy to operate and functioned exactly as intended from the very first try! It is ready for use anytime, but it will most likely be needed more during a summer launch season.”

“It takes a village to bring an idea to fruition,” said McAleenan. “I think that's the creative processes way. One person has the idea and mentions it to another who just happens to know a guy who might be able to help, etc. If any one of the members weren't in the right place at the right time it wouldn’t have worked.”

According to McAleenan, the National Weather Service is interested in the WeatherBot for places that have routine stormy weather. 

For the next round of AFSPC Ivan A. Getting Innovation nominations, the AFSPC Commander’s Action Group will call for nominations starting May 12.  Packages must be turned in no later than June 30.