Space | 17. March 2014 | posted by Tom Uhlig

Another term comes to an end…

There was, once again, a nice change of pace this week, not on the console or in the office, but in our training room! One of my extra jobs – in fact it has actually become more of my focus – is training. In particular, training the new colleagues that will support us after their roughly nine-month 'apprenticeship' at the console.

As always, our group of 'teachers' was quite international: Anna Rita, Ciro and Marco are from Italy, Niko is from Croatia, Julio is from France, Sjoerd is from the Netherlands, Misbahur is from India and Ferit has Aramaic roots. There was also a strong German presence, with Tom, Savio and myself. What we all have in common is that we are experienced flight controllers with several years at the console 'under our belts' – and are therefore predestined to pass our knowledge on to the next generation.

A prerequisite to apply for the exciting job of flight controller is a university degree, usually in either a natural science or engineering. Of course, good English skills and high motivation are also decisive selection criteria.

I still remember my own training like it was yesterday – it was great! For any space enthusiast, it is quite exceptional. Along with a lot of preliminary self-study, two weeks at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne are on the timetable. This is where you receive instruction on the basic functions of Columbus and the European experiment racks – just like the astronauts.

Then follows the operational training, which is dealt with by my team. The new flight controllers must learn everything about our concept of operation, the relevant processes and procedures, the software tools that we use at the consoles together with the US space agency NASA, as well as reactions to critical situations – and they must get used to our methods of operational communication. Usually, we introduce these subjects over a period three to four weeks – the courses are held either at the EAC or at the Columbus Control Centre. Of course, we check the knowledge of the newcomers regularly with multiple-choice tests and in the two Columbus Operations Readiness Boards (CORBs), which grant admission to the next level of training – the simulation phase – and, eventually, final certification by the European Space Agency.

While our 'students' acquire the relevant expertise needed for their future console position, a flight director will later have to cope with completely different tasks, for example, STRATOS (Safeguarding Thermal Resources Avionics Telecommunications Operations Systems), so they also complete 'on-the-job-training' (OJT) with their future colleagues at that level. Initially, they only observe the various processes and tasks in the control room; towards the end of their training, however, the experienced flight controllers can sit back at the console, showing confidence in the ‘newbie’, and only intervene when things get 'out of hand'.

A special highlight of OJT – our new colleagues also have to visit the control room in Houston. There, they get an impression of the work of their future colleagues across the Atlantic and can also establish connections that will facilitate future cooperation.

Essential in the training process are the final simulations. Together with other new colleagues, a typical ISS day is recreated – a computer simulation of Columbus and the International Space Station responds to sent commands and also allows the creation of errors, which must be coped with. We then introduce both NASA colleagues and the astronauts as background – sometimes we even show the students video and simulate the work of the department in our Columbus mock-up. But actually, our main task is to unobtrusively watch over our new colleagues shoulders as they work at the console and offer them appropriate feedback and 'old timers' advice.

Additional lessons provide an introduction to the soft skills that are needed at the console: communication, decision making under stress, teamwork and the art of maintaining an overview in complex situations. Even the very specific processes to ensure that the astronauts will not be exposed to any risks must be learned.

Once all the hurdles have been overcome, the end of the certification process is reached and a 'driver's license' for the console is issued. Then, it is time for the first 'solo flight; the first command is sent to the ISS and the first chat with the astronauts on board takes place.

Then, you are part of the 'secret society' that keeps a watchful eye on the ISS and the astronauts around the clock – and their contribution to the adventure that is human spaceflight.

In the training room at the Columbus Control Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen. Credit: DLR CC-BY (3.0)


About the author

Tom Uhlig heads the training team at the Columbus Control Centre that introduces the new colleagues to their work in the control room and certifies them. to authorpage