Let’s play a little game:
Take an old laptop, power cables, an installation DVD and a network cable. Now go to a friend, give him all the items, tell him to read the manual explaining how to connect to the internet and ask him or her to install everything and use the laptop to go online. Whenever an issue arises tell them to call you. To make it more fun, make some changes to the network settings beforehand. And oh yeah, impose a 35-minute time limit. *evil laugh*. Give the GO to start installing everything, and, play the waiting game.
This is in essence the situation we were when the METERON laptop was installed on the International Space Station.
We have come so far with the project that we ended the preparation phase and have entered the operations phase. It is time for some action! In order to prepare for Andreas’s rover-driving activity in September, the whole METERON robotic communication network needs to be tested and as a first step the laptop that he will use has to be installed and configured by an astronaut already on the Station. Once installed we are able to access the laptop and start our ground operations.
Just as we at payload ground operations command scientific payloads, there is a whole other world for crew operations. Everything needs to be coordinated, planned, checked and double-checked. Even then, unforeseen circumstances can make the temperature in the control room rise by a few degrees. The ”manual” we gave to the friend in our example is a procedure that the astronaut has to execute. If all goes well, they do not call down and we just wait and start biting our nails. Whenever we hear crew calling down saying “MUNICH, this is STATION for METERON”, we think about turning up the air-conditioning.
The International Space Station is a complex spacecraft, so even simple tasks can be challenging. If you need an astronaut to install and connect power cables, it can get complicated. Feel free to have a look around up there. Working with software on a laptop adds additional complexity when ground control does not know in whic
h step of the procedure the astronaut is stuck or what the astronaut is seeing on the laptop display. If an astronaut calls down saying something is not expected, more interaction is required. Getting information, finding a solution and instructing crew on how to fix it, is the way we roll. In the end, everything went pretty smoothly. But we did guide them on the radio using our voices only.
Do not forget that we had a time limit and so should your friend. Have fun troubleshooting on the phone!