VAMPIR, STRATOS and the legacy of Juri Gagarin in GSOC


ESAS's Columbus Control Centre

Fifty-nine years ago the first human-made Earth satellite, Sputnik, was launched into Earth orbit, thus bringing in the era of space exploration.  Juri Alexejewitsch Gagarin, a Soviet Air Forces pilot and cosmonaut, became the first human to orbit the earth on 12 April, 1961, this day then becoming the International Day of Human Space Flight.

Since then several significant technical milestones have been achieved: Humans on the moon, rovers on distant planets, planetary probes landing on asteroids. Another significant milestone, both technically and politically, has been the development of the International Space Station (ISS).

GMV personnel have been directly involved in ISS operations, participating in the operations of the Columbus Module, the science laboratory contributed by the European Space Agency (ESA). The module was launched aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis on February 7, 2008, and is controlled from the Columbus Control Center (Col-CC), located at the German Space Operations Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich, Germany.

Since then, engineers of different teams at Col-CC have been providing their expertise to ensure the best and most secure working conditions for the European astronauts, and to support them in the execution of a myriad of scientific experiments.

The Columbus Flight Control Team (FCT) works around the clock, monitoring and controlling the onboard thermal, environmental, computing and power supply systems. The FCT works closely with International Partner flight teams, such as the Flight Control Teams at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville (MSFC), Alabama, and the Russian Mission Control Center in Korolev, near Moscow.

The flight planners coordinate onboard experiments with the responsible European research centercenters, ensuring that all activities are allocated sufficient resources onboard the ISS and at the appropriate centers on the ground.

The Ground Control Team (GCT) is responsible for the operation of the European Ground Segment, the Wide Area Network connecting all European Control, Operations, and Support Centers with each other, and with the International Partners in the USA, Russia, and Canada. Working together with teams of network-, voice-, video- and data-engineers, the GCT assures the timely provision of telemetry, telecommand, video and voice services to all European user centers and partners.

The first thing that many have mentioned when joining the Columbus/ISS project is the enormous cultural diversity! Just about every country in the European Union, and many outside of the EU, is represented, whether in the melting-pot we call the Col-CC, at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, or at the User and Engineering Support Centers scattered throughout Europe. It is this aspect, along with the technological and organizational challenges we face every day, that makes involvement in this project so gratifying.

The second thing that hits us when we begin reading the technical documentation, or even when talking shop over a coffee, is the immense amount of acronyms used! It seems that nothing is called by its name, but instead by its initials. So a lot of our talk is of DaSS, MCS, MCE, and PDSS. But sometimes we’re able to be a bit more creative with the naming of places and things. For example, in Col-CC, our video engineers (one of them coming from Romania, Dracula’s country) work out of the VAMPIR (Video and Media Processing and Imagery Room). And the Columbus Flight Controller is called STRATOS (Safeguarding Thermal Resources Avionics Telecommunications Operations Systems). OK, some can be a bit far-fetched, but it does make for a much tastier alphabet soup!

Public perception of human spaceflight is, naturally, predominated by visions of astronauts floating weightless through their spaceships. What one doesn’t see is the extraordinary amount of planning of flight and ground resources that is necessary to make this happen. Resources, such as power and data bandwidth, and especially crew time, onboard the ISS are limited. But the scientists all want their experiments to run, maintenance tasks need to be performed, equipment needs upgrading, and, of course, media and politicians are always looking for opportunities to talk with the crew members.

The international planning teams on the ground, including at Col-CC, start working a year or more in advance, evaluating and prioritizing the needs and desires of all stakeholders, resulting in a rough plan. The plan is continually revised, becoming more detailed with time. Final details are even made to the plan as late as one day prior to execution.

Once the planning has been finalized, it’s up to the operations teams to put them into action. In the vast majority of cases, activities are executed according to plan. However, Murphy’s Law (“whatever can go wrong, will”), is sometimes lurking right around the corner. There is a reason for sayings such as, “the best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry” (R. Burns, 1759-1796). We in the Columbus/ISS program are not immune to this phenomenon.

As an example, one of the highest visibility and time critical activities performed onboard the ISS is the so-called PAO (Public Affairs Office) event. This is a live audio-video call-up to the crew, often from a public venue, that absolutely has to happen on time. Well, as luck would have it recently, Murphy indeed decided to rear his ugly head about 10 minutes before the scheduled start to the event. Flight controllers had everything set up on-board; ground controllers had everything ready to go on the ground. And then? Nothing! No video! We were in danger of losing the event!

Situations like this call for calm, cool efficiency. Once the report came over the voice loop that we were receiving no video, flight and ground controllers quickly begin verifying their systems. Are routings in place? Is data flowing? Is there a fallback possibility? In this case the fault was quickly identified on remote equipment of ours at MSFC, but which unfortunately couldn’t be recovered in time. By the time this was reported, a backup solution had already been identified, and was quickly put into action. The event happened as planned, with the participants at the event site not even aware that, just a few minutes before, everything was in jeopardy.

There are countless examples in the course of human spaceflight, in which planning, training, and expert knowledge are counted on, where teamwork and cooperation are essential, to achieving results. This was true on April 12, 1961, and it is true today. The excitement that Juri and his team certainly experienced back then is experienced by our teams on a daily basis, in our own little corner of the human spaceflight endeavor.


Authors: Ilinca Ioanid and Daniel Burdulis 

Las opiniones vertidas por el autor son enteramente suyas y no siempre representan la opinión de GMV
The author’s views are entirely his own and may not reflect the views of GMV

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