From time to time, spaceships also need new software - and it was Columbus’ turn on the 22nd and 23rd September 2009. It was actually the second time that the International Space Station's European research module had a complete update of its computer programs, while orbiting the Earth at a speed of 28,000 km/h.
Unlike the common, generally unspectacular, and often automatic, software updates on home computers, the space laboratory's latest software upgrade required months of preparation and complex reconfiguration. Guido Morzuch, responsible flight director at the Columbus Control Centre (Col-CC) in Oberpfaffenhofen, described the preparation: "Not only did the new software have to be programmed and intensively tested, also the upload and the transition of Columbus to the new version 12 had to be planned meticulously, and all eventualities had to be considered.“
Horst Himmelskamp, one of Astrium’s support engineers sent down from Bremen to support the Columbus flight control team, described the difficulties in more detail. “The software was first of all on a CD-ROM, which had to be brought by spacecraft to the ISS, we need the support of the astronauts, and we have to power down main components of the space laboratory before switching over. The control centre software also has to be changed in parallel. And, in case there are problems, we have to be able to switch back to the previous version at any time".
In order to quickly be able to use the old software in case of problems, the main operations control room in Oberpfaffenhofen will continue to be operated with the old version. The complete Flight Control Team will move for several days to the secondary control room, in which the new software has already been installed. Once the new computer programs have proven themselves to be reliable, the main control room will be reconfigured and the flight controllers will be able to operate from their usual place of work.
Now that, in the last few days, the updates of the on-board and ground computers have been successfully accomplished without any major problems, there will follow an exhaustive test programme. The European astronaut, Frank de Winne, has already expressed his extreme satisfaction with the unproblematic and professional work of the flight controllers in Munich and the team of experts from Bremen.