The Department of Defense relies heavily on precise weather data—temperature, atmospheric pressure and other conditions that cause hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones and floods—to make key decisions and protect troops, and is now racing to replace aging meteorological satellites that provide this critical information.
Central to this effort is Chong Le, an Air Force civilian engineer who is leading the team and working on a new, modern weather-forecasting and warning satellite system expected to launch in 2023 that will collect vital data to predict major weather events and natural disasters.
“Chong has been overseeing this project from birth to launch: the design, manufacture and testing of the system,” said Luke Schaub, the deputy director of the Space Production Corps. “He is the consummate engineer with significant expertise and the ability to bring people together to solve technical challenges. He is vital to what we do.”
Charlotte Gerhart, chief of the Space Production Corps’ Low-Earth Orbit Division, said the $1 billion satellite weather system will not only provide key data to the military, but serve Americans “every single day.”
“The data from this system will support your local weather report and provide global coverage,” Gerhart said. “Chong Le’s work enables that capability by telling us when weather systems are developing, where they are going and when to evacuate.”
Le’s current work follows a previous satellite project between 1995 and 2011 to help the Defense Department spot missile launches across the globe, both friendly and hostile. This Space Based Infrared System in 2019 detected nearly 1,000 missile launches, serving as an early warning defense system.
Both of these space-surveillance satellite programs have a common element: They use cutting-edge technology that Le helped develop, coordinate and put into use.
Leaders of the Space Production Corps, part of the U.S. Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said Le’s career spans a wide range of accomplishments that reflect his ability to connect innovative science and complex engineering tasks. and diverse end users.
For example, he acted as the systems engineering lead for the 2019 launch of the U.S-Taiwan Constellation Observing System for Meteorology Ionosphere and Climate satellites, a constellation of small satellites used for weather forecasting, climate monitoring and space weather research.
The partnership involving the Department of Commerce, the Air Force, Taiwan’s National Space Organization and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, is an effort that could have been hampered by a partial U.S. government shutdown in late 2018 and early 2019 during a critical late stage of the project were it not for Le’s work on coordinating all the partners.
Le similarly found ways to keep the newest satellite weather program on track during the COVID-19 pandemic when a critical design review involving scientists, engineers and end users would normally dictate meeting in person. He was able to make it happen remotely and keep the team on track, his supervisors said.
Air Force Maj. Ruben Ihuit, a former deputy program manager on the weather satellite program, said Le has “outshone everyone.”
“Chong is innovative, motivated and dedicated,” Ihuit said. “He has leveraged a lot of digital platforms and digital engineering capabilities that the team was not aware of and kept pushing us to use new approaches.”
A government employee for more than 34 years, Le graduated from California State University, Los Angeles, with a degree in engineering. In college, he thought he wanted to work on big machines or cars and never really thought about high-tech challenges. But he soon discovered that a civilian career with the military would let him continually learn and rotate into different programs and experiences with new technology challenges.
In his spare time, Le volunteers with Wealth by Health, an organization that seeks to reduce health inequalities in underprivileged communities. Last year, he devoted more than 200 hours leading the group’s scholarship selection committee and managed logistical efforts to deliver free care through mobile health clinics.
While Le’s satellite work with the Air Force is complex, he says everything he does is based on a simple principle.
“I always tell my kids that when you look back on your lives, you want to know you have benefited other people,” he said. “Government has given me that opportunity.”