After yesterday’s launch scrub for STS-127 due to weather, I was listening in on some of NASA’s press conference on NASA TV. One of the reporters asked about the weather criteria, if they were perhaps too strict now that we have more advanced methods of assessing weather conditions than we did when the criteria was developed, or something to that effect.
I don’t remember the answer Mike Moses gave, but the question made me think. While it is very easy to get frustrated over strict weather criteria when it hinders a launch and the weather is borderline, that line has to be drawn somewhere. Pilots are all too familiar with the concept of “get-there-itis,” which is used to describe the affliction when someone is so fixated on getting where they are going that they take unnecessary risks to get there. These risks might be with weather, fatigue, or even mechanical issues.
I remember an experience many years ago as a student pilot flying with my instructor from Pensacola back home to Tallahassee. We were flying a 1966 Cessna 150 by VFR or visual flight rules, meaning we were navigating by sight rather than instruments. The plane was not certified for instrument flight, so that was our only option. VFR flight requires certain weather and visibility conditions and we were okay in Pensacola, but it didn’t look good in the direction we were heading. We probably shouldn’t have left Pensacola when we did, but we were anxious to get back so we took off and headed back home.
As we traveled, the clouds went from scattered to not-so-scattered and by the time we got to Destin (about a quarter of the way home), we were having to fly so low to stay beneath the ceiling we could practically read the street signs. Fortunately, we were able to land at Destin and wait out the weather, but many are not so lucky. So often the desire to get somewhere overcomes rational decision making, leading to the pilot’s demise. And pilots are only looking to get home or to wherever they are going- imagine how much the get-there-itis is amplified when the destination is a mission to space and people all over the world are watching expectantly.
Just think- if the weather criteria for launch were not set so firmly, it would be easy to rationalize launching when weather was just a little beyond the guidelines. If that works out without an issue, then the next time it makes sense to allow weather that is a little farther out of specifications, and so on. It is a slippery slope. Without strict criteria, pretty soon we’d find ourselves taking unnecessary risks. We can’t let get-there-itis cause us to make bad decisions.
I will admit that launch scrubs frustrate me just as much as everyone else, and sometimes I want to yell, “Just light it off, already!” But I also understand the reasoning behind it and that it is the nature of our industry. Ultimately, I think everyone would agree that the safety of the crew is well worth the wait.