AWS Public Sector Blog

How students help modernize rocket launches at the Western Range with the AWS Cloud

Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB), also known as the Western Launch and Test Range, is one of only two U.S. Space Force launch ranges. VSFB’s mission is to serve the U.S. warfighter by quickly and effectively launching payloads into space, which they do by facilitating private interest, military, and federal rocket launches.

A safe rocket launch relies on the ability of Western Range meteorologists to gather and analyze weather data in real-time. The meteorologists then review the data to optimize launch performance and make critical go/no-go decisions that directly impact the safety of space vehicle operators and their crew. However, there was one major hold-up in the system.

For years, VSFB’s meteorologists relied on an outdated interface that made capturing and disseminating real-time data difficult. The Western Range team knew they needed to switch to an agile, cloud-based solution that would streamline data analysis and keep operators safe—which prompted them to call on students and Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud experts at the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub), powered by AWS, to help VSFB prototype a solution. The DxHub is one of 13 organizations part of the AWS Cloud Innovation Centers (CIC) Program, which provides an opportunity for nonprofits, education institutions, and government agencies around the world to collaborate with other public sector organizations on their most pressing challenges, test new ideas with Amazon’s innovation process, and access the technology expertise of AWS to help create solutions with cloud technology.

Putting user experience at the center of the solution

There are more than 200 instruments collecting data at the Western Range to support their rocket launches. Currently, meteorologists and other experts access the information from those instruments through a website called XUI (external user interface). But because XUI was outdated and difficult to use, VSFB had to develop web crawlers to scrape the application and compile reports. XUI simply wasn’t designed with modern users in mind. When the VSFB team spoke to the DxHub on the Cal Poly campus, improving user experience in XUI was their top priority.

Prioritizing the user experience aligned with the DxHub’s approach to developing AWS Cloud solutions. “We use Amazon’s Working Backwards approach when building our prototypes,” said Nick Osterbur, AWS digital innovation lead at the DxHub. “We focus on understanding the customer in a deep way and solutioning from there. It’s not about coming up with a reason to try out new AI [artificial intelligence] or cutting-edge tools. It’s about understanding the user’s needs first.”

As a first step, DxHub student project manager Alice Sukhostavskiy, an aerospace engineer major, worked closely with VSFB and their commercial space industry customers to understand their pain points. “I put myself in the position of the customer,” Sukhostavskiy said. “I asked: what do they want to see in this database? How can we make it more user-friendly?” After fully understanding the customer’s needs, the DxHub team then used this deep knowledge to inform the building of a scalable, modern database centered on the user.

Using the AWS Cloud to parse big data

Addressing the primary user pain point required the DxHub team to build an API that could process and retrieve massive amounts of data—much of which is gathered in an unconventional format. “The biggest challenge was analyzing the data we were given,” said Joseph Trevino, a student developer at the DxHub. “We had close to eight million files to parse and put in the database. To do that, we had to know what instruments were collecting which data and how. We also had to understand the nuances of the dataset to account for errors and ensure the data was reliable.”

Trevino and the team used Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) to store raw data from the instruments and host the application’s front-end. They then wrote code for an AWS Lambda trigger that would determine the appropriate parsing procedure for a given dataset. This code allows the Western Range team to simply add new instruments to the database. After the data is parsed, it is stored in an Amazon Aurora instance managed by Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS). A mature API that uses Amazon API Gateway pulls the structured data out programmatically. This API was also used to build a new website that allows users to view current observations as well as flag archive data for download. While the DxHub team was given historical data to work with for their prototype, because they built in the AWS Cloud, VSFB can integrate Amazon Kinesis to allow parsing and reporting to happen in real-time.

After only three months, the DxHub delivered a reliable prototype with a simple-to-use interface that allows meteorologists to see a snapshot of weather data in real-time. And since the prototype is built on the FedRAMP-compliant AWS GovCloud (US), it’s already compliant for use in the federal government. Osterbur noted: “That means all the services we relied on to build this app are already in line with Department of Defense cybersecurity requirements.”

Preparing for launch

With the DxHub prototype, Western Range meteorologists can save about 50 hours of work a month – weeks of work every year – and shows that cloud technology and student ingenuity can help transform even the highest levels of government. “The DxHub has, and continues to be a tremendous catalyst for change at the Western Range. The DxHub engagements have shown folks across the base new ways of approaching a multitude of challenges we face,” said Range Technical Director Steve Rogers.

As an added bonus, the prototype application is replicable. Because it is open-source, it can be expanded to any airspace base in the country—or any other government organization that might benefit from this data. Hill Air Force Base in Utah has already expressed interest in learning more about the prototype, and participated in a recent demonstration with the DxHub and the Western Range.

“The DxHub gives public sector organizations and nonprofits the chance to delve into the innovation arena, which they might not be able to do otherwise,” said Paul Jurasin, director of the DxHub. “It allows them to take a more innovative approach—all while tapping into an incredible pool of student talent from Cal Poly and leveraging AWS technologies to help solve tomorrow’s problems today.”

Visit the Cal Poly weather data product GitHub repository to contribute to the project.

To learn more about how AWS Cloud Innovation Centers support public sector projects that are transforming the world, visit the AWS CIC hub.

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