Diary from a space project – 21 March 2012, Wednesday (L-2!)

Latest pre-launch report from Charlotte Beskow with the Engineering Support Team (EST) in Toulouse — Ed.

EST Room - Part 1: The other room (Part 2) is visible via camera

EST Room - Part 1: The other room (Part 2) is visible via camera

On my way to the office, I pass an advertisement which reads “Les choses improbable arrivent probablement,” which translates roughly as “The improbable will probably happen;”  I hope it is not a bad omen… 🙂

At ATV-CC, the atmosphere is ‘like before a major exam in school’. The EST are arriving from Bremen, Les Mureaux and ESA/ESTEC (NL). Two experts can not be here due to last-minute personal circumstances and they will be missed. The planning is adjusted accordingly.

We take the opportunity to do a last-minute check of consoles, procedures, etc. In the excitement of packing, there is always the risk of forgetting something but we share what we have and with the electronic storage across various databases it is relatively easy to collect the latest version of documents still sitting on the hall table at home. It is hard when your main task is hundreds of kilometres away from home. Luckily, many of us have similar equipment allowing us to share power adapters and phone chargers.

Roll-out of ATV-3, Edoardo Amaldi, is taking place later today, about 14:00 CET.

At 11:00, we have a briefing with our ESA/CNES flight control team counterparts. Our roles are very different. The flight control team operate Our vessel within its qualified domain. They execute the nominal plan, nominal procedures and handle the first level, predefined reaction, in case of problems. They also interface via the voice loops with the Houston and Moscow Control Centres, which operate the International Space Station.

We, the Engineering Support Team (EST), are there to support them in case things do not go according to plan. It is our task to prepare for the unexpected.

First, we have the main meeting where the flight control team run through their set up. Then we have small splinter meetings, according to discipline. This is great because during operations we never have time to talk to each other. The teams change between flights so we do not always have time to get to know the opposite party. Splinter sessions allow us to do a last-minute cross check of procedures and give a ‘heads up’ on things to think about.

We finish at about 13:00 and for some of us the next meeting starts at 14:00, so perhaps lunch? Oh dear, the CNES canteen staff are still on strike!!! Don’t they know we have a launch coming up? (Or maybe they do! Ed.)

ATV-CC is not exactly in the centre of town, so you cannot simply pop out and grab something. I had brought my lunch in any case and I end up in a meeting room, together with my ESA ATV-CC colleagues. They, taken by surprise, had sent a runner off to the nearest centre commercial… And soon the heavy odour of chocroute is escaping from the microwave. My chicken is great — except that I had forgotten to bring a knife and fork (and a plate…). Try to cut a chicken leg lying on a slippery plastic plate using plastic knife and fork — you get the picture!

We wash this down with Orangina (or water) and afterwards feast on wonderful coffee (there are plenty of Italians in the team and they have installed a top-notch espresso machine) and wonderful dark chocolate which a thoughtful ESA guy bought.

At 14:00, we pile into the briefing room. The flight director runs through the mission plan for the coming days. It will be a very intensive period.

If all goes well, Ariane 5 will launch Edoardo at 04:34 GMT Friday, 23 March. Separation takes place about an hour later at 05:37 GMT. Docking with the ISS is on 28 March, at 22:33 GMT, so we have 7 intensive days ahead of us.

You can follow it on the internet via http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/ATV/index.html. (You can also follow it right here in the blog – Ed.)

Those of us who are not on the critical Launch and Early Orbit Phase (LEOP) shift during and immediately after lift-off are invited to watch the launch at CNES; I belong to that group. Naturally, I will be there in the morning, and  then, depending on what happens during separation and LEOP, I’ll get some rest before returning for my 21:00-05:00 shift.

At the end of the mission briefing, we have about 40 minutes before the final EST briefing starts. Since we, the EST, do not have any offices here in Toulouse we stay in the main meeting room and work. It gets a bit noisy, but the atmosphere is great.

I have managed to corner a NASA person to get help in logging into the NASA operations websites. I had access in 2007/2008 for the ATV-1 flight  but then NASA beefed up their security and I haven’t gotten in since, despite having followed all the instructions about revalidating my access, updating passwords, supplying new credentials, etc.

After 40 precious minutes, several attempts and continuous hotline support from Houston, I still have no access. NASA websites are certainly very secure!

I suspect that for this flight we will have to do as for the last flight, i.e. the Mission Director (who has access) continuously prints out what is important for EST, scans it and emails it to the EST Leaders — not very practical but it works.

The EST briefing starts at 16:00. We run through the manning (nice and colourful) and make some last-minute adjustments. We check the last-minute proposed deviations from the baseline mission plan and do some final coordination.

Last-minute deviations can take place for many reasons, and are not necessarily related to any ATV anomaly. They can be due to ground-equipment issues, the need for some extra telemetry, analysis of air quality on the ISS, changes in crew planning, etc.

At 19:30, with the police stand-off still continuing, we wind up the day’s activities. We are as ready as we can be! The day has been very long — mostly spent on bad chairs in a room with no windows. Part of the team wind it up with drinks and dinner in one of the many  wonderful restaurants that Toulouse has to offer.

Tomorrow, 22 March, the EST have a compulsory rest day. This is necessary because in case things do not go as planned we will not get much rest until whatever has happened has been sorted out.

Recap of the important timings for the coming days

23 March — launch — 04:34 GMT
23 March — separation — 05:37 GMT
Phasing (over a few days, we gradually ‘phase’ our orbit with that of the ISS in order to line up for the rendezvous)
25 March — Europe goes to summer time
26 March — Extension of docking probe
28 March — Rendezvous phase starts at ~18:26 GMT
Actual docking planned for 22:33 GMT (i.e. 00:33 local time)
29 March — hatch opening planned for ~16:00 GMT

Can you see the ISS?

Yes, you can — but only if you are an early bird because the visible passes these coming days are very early. Check Heavens-above.com

Only a few hours left now…

That’s it for now!

— Charlotte