Wow! Today, you could say some of us have spent six years of our lives 'in the spotlight' – because Columbus has now been in orbit for exactly six years! Not many of the original 'pioneers' remain – you can count them on the fingers of one hand. Those were some exciting days, back in February 2008. The 1E-mission – the first 'European' flight of the Space Shuttle that would take the Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station (ISS), had been repeatedly postponed for various reasons over the years; in particular, the Columbia tragedy in February 2003 pushed the ISS schedule back a long way. Finally, the launch of 'our spaceship' was set for 6 December 2007 – there were some tense minutes when, just a couple of hours before lift-off, the launch was cancelled for technical reasons. So near and yet so far from the start of the mission! In the days that followed, and after long discussions, the launch date was set for 7 February 2008. The team would be able to enjoy a quiet and relaxing Christmas holiday – the last one for some years to come…
The actual launch can only be described as 'surreal'. It’s not that we hadn’t prepared for this moment during all those years, but we suddenly had to deal with reality – the three nozzles of the Space Shuttle swivelling, followed by a tremendous burst of energy from the two solid rocket boosters and Atlantis lifting off from the launch pad, with Columbus in its interior. Just a few moments later, the Space Shuttle was just a tiny speck in the live video from Cape Canaveral – and the launch pad was covered in smoke, just as black as the sky above Florida, which had made the countdown nerve wracking; the launch was ‘no go’ as a result of the weather at one moment, and then it was 'go' due to a favourable forecast.
Against the backdrop of the blue Atlantic Ocean, the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts off with its crew of seven astronauts from Kennedy Space Center – the beginning of the STS-122 mission to the International Space Station ISS. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann.
During the first days of the mission – prior to docking with the ISS – we had the opportunity to take a crash-course in 'Real Ops'; although we had performed countless mission simulations, including all possible failure scenarios, and also together with NASA, many procedures were difficult or impossible to simulate, so we had to get 'hands-on' in the real world – and we had to do it fast.
Later, in a complex choreography, the Shuttle approached the ISS, and finally docked. Using the robotic arm, and supported by astronauts in their spacesuits, Columbus was lifted out of Atlantis and installed on 'Node 2' of the ISS. Activation of the module began – an interplay between the crew, NASA colleagues in Houston and us – our baptism of fire as the Columbus Control Centre.
Installation of the Columbus module on the International Space Station. Credit: ESA/NASA.
We all remember the 1E mission as the absolute highlight of our working careers; never before had a European control centre been so closely linked to a Space Shuttle mission. Many of us grew up with the US shuttle programme, excitedly followed missions on TV or re-enacted them with Lego – and now we were directly involved in such a mission.
In retrospect, several years later and in spite of it being part of my daily routine, I still get chills down my back when I think back to the moments when, while extremely nervous, I listened to the radio communications with the astronauts during their extra-vehicular activity, the spacewalk, and thought through the commands – with all sorts of possibilities for errors. I had to quickly send, at the request of Houston, an instruction to de-energise a contact and allow the space walkers to install the SOLAR external experiment platform …