MEX lift off 10 years ago now!

Mars Express was launched on 2 June 2003 at 17:45 UT, 19:45 CEST, from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, via a Soyuz/Fregat rocket.

Thank you, @NASAhistory, for a thoughtful – and timely – birthday tweet!


We are at Maaaaaaaars!

Today’s post – part of a series of reports marking the MEX 10th anniversary – was submitted by Mars Express Operations Manager Michel Denis, who was in the Main Control Room at ESOC during the night of 24/25 December 2003 when Europe arrived at Mars – Ed.

It was 25 December 2003, in the very early morning hours. As Spacecraft Operations Manager, I was invited from the Main Control Room to the large Conference Centre (where the main event at ESOC was happening – Ed.) to report on the ongoing Mars orbit injection manoeuvre. We know it has started, but we didn’t yet know whether it had completed successfully.

Team in ESOC Main Control Room 24 Dec 2003 (pana, left) Credit: ESA/M. Denis

Team in ESOC Main Control Room 24/25 Dec 2003 (panorama, left) Credit: ESA/M. Denis

Whatever my innermost emotions and questions, I talked to the officials and the journalists in the tone you need for these circumstances. I told them that the 39 commands that perform the ‘now or never’ orbit-injection manoeuvre have been verified innumerable times down to the last bit by the best experts; I repeated that the manoeuvre had been rehearsed exhaustively, using extreme simulations of the software and harsh tests of the spacecraft’s main engine by the manufacturer.

As a rational engineer I know that 100% certainty is impossible to achieve.

I pointed out that, if required, the small thrusters can automatically step in to help reduce our speed by almost 3000 km/h to help us get ‘caught’ by the Red Planet’s gravity.

Team in ESOC Main Control Room 24 Dec 2003 (pana, right) Credit: ESA/M. Denis

Team in ESOC Main Control Room 24 Dec 2003 (panorama, right) Credit: ESA/M. Denis

As a rational engineer, I know that 100% certainty is impossible to achieve, and that much can happen in such a 40-minute-long manoeuvre…

Now I had to return back on console, and went back down to the Main Control Room, where my deputy, Alan Moorhouse, was in charge – mainly of waiting at that particular moment.

If you know ESOC, you certainly know the rotunda – a large spiral staircase leading to the Conference Centre (it’s in the H Building; the MCR is in the E Building – Ed.).

Michel Denis Credit: ESA/J. Mai

Michel Denis Credit: ESA/J. Mai

I start going down the steps, floating between two worlds equally tense; from the glossy world of the public event to the protected world of the Main Control Room – a busy cocoon where we had lived already ten days and nights, where the entry manoeuvre has been prepared based on the computations by Flight Dynamics, where all critical commands have finally been assembled and up loaded to our little spaceship 150 million kilometres away.

Flight Dynamics confirm capture, within 0.5% accuracy.

In the middle of the stairs, between the floor of talks and the floor of acts, the mobile phone wiggles in my pocket. A message from Alan: “Flight Dynamics confirm capture, within 0.5% accuracy.”

In everyone’s private or professional life there are turning points which, however planned and expected, represent ‘a giant leap’, to paraphrase a glorious quote. A point with a Before and an After; ‘after’,  our existence is changed, irreversibly.

In these instants, the present is more intense; more present than ever. Overwhelming.

Rotunda staircase at ESOC. Yelling is normally not permitted. Credit: ESA/J. Mai

Rotunda staircase at ESOC. Yelling is normally not permitted. Credit: ESA/J. Mai

So overwhelming, that when you remember this moment years or decades later, you revive it as it were the first time again.

I am overwhelmed, alone in the huge rotunda, perfectly empty, everyone at ESOC is either sitting in the Conference Centre or standing in the control rooms, waiting for the news. Alone, for a few seconds, in this resonant space that makes sounds impressive, where I often sang Christmas carols with the ESOC Choir. Today is Christmas day; whether child or adult, whether you believe or not, in our lives a special date, very emotional.

“We are at Maaaaaaaars!” I could not refrain from yelling, with my loudest voice, to expel from my chest all the emotions of the night and the years of preparation and the last-minute doubts and angst and the incredible joy that seizes me now, just like Mars has seized Mars Express, just like Europe has seized Mars. We are at Mars: now it is true, and nothing can make this not to have happened.

Merry Christmas Europe!  Welcome to Mars!