Spaceflight means teamwork
When we report from the Columbus Control Centre (Col-CC) on the latest developments on the International Space Station (ISS), we do so not only as one of the five main control centres for the ISS, but also as one of the many control centres for the European part of the work conducted on the Space Station.
Although all the threads of ESA's activities come together here with us, important monitoring and commanding tasks for the experiments themselves are often performed elsewhere. Each European experiment has its own small control centre somewhere in Europe, which receives the data, monitors the hardware, sends commands and guarantees the availability of technical expertise and assistance for the astronauts should questions or problems arise. These centres are also the interface to the experiment scientists in universities and research institutions.
In our jargon, these small centres are referred to as 'USOCs' – one of the many hundreds or probably even thousands of abbreviations that we use. It stands for 'User Support and Operations Centre'. Our colleagues at these centres are, however, not always available – unlike the team here at Col-CC. They only go 'to the console' when something must be done for their experiment, either since it is being run, because the astronauts are working on it or because preparatory activities have to be performed – perhaps implementing new procedures or checking that our planners have correctly inserted the necessary activities into the Space Station timetable, a kind of 'pre-coordination'…
Today at the consoles: Dario in Naples (Microgravity Advanced Research and Support Centre; MARS), Philipp and Arjan in Cologne (Microgravity User Support Center; MUSC), Alexandra in Lucerne (Biotechnology Space Support Center; BIOTESC), Cecile in Toulouse (Centre d'Aide au Développement des activités en Micropesanteur et des Opérations Spatiales; CADMOS) and Koen in Brussels (Belgian User Support and Operations centre; B.USOC).
In the control room of the Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) in Cologne. Credit: DLR CC-BY (3.0).
They do not need to be present around the clock as we are here in Oberpfaffenhofen, but we have more company – and great contacts.
There is always a STRATOS, who monitors all the Columbus subsystems, and a COL FLIGHT, who is responsible for all European activities on the ISS and coordinates these. A COMET takes care of the planning, while a GSOC GC and a SYSCON manage our complicated ground systems. When the astronauts are working, there is also a EUROCOM, the only person that is allowed to speak to the crew, and a COSMO, who takes care of all mechanical and logistical matters. However, these latter two positions are usually not physically with us in Oberpfaffenhofen, but are where has the necessary expertise is located – at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne or one of the two engineering centres in Bremen and Turin. These colleagues are connected with us through our 'Voice Communications System' and we have access to the same databases, so that we can work well together despite the distance. This is also how we work with the USOCs and NASA.
The Columbus Control Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen, at the console of the Flight Directors. Credit: DLR CC-BY (3.0).
'Backstage', there are several teams that support us constantly on weekdays, but do not form part of the 'front room' crew – a planning and experiment coordination group, the ESA mission directors, a team of engineers that acts as a first point of contact for any technical problems that we cannot solve on our own and a medical team. These are all part of the operations team, and then, behind them, there are groups of experts and functions that we do not have access to via our 'usual channels' – they are 'offline'…
Today, it is relatively quiet on the Space Station – the astronauts have a day off on the occasion of 'Cosmonaut Day' (the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering flight on 12 April 1961).
We – a large team distributed across Europe – thus prepare for the days ahead. Our Fluid Science Lab needs be tested, an experiment called 'T-Cell' is approaching – almost, at least – because the launch of the 'Dragon' space capsule has been delayed, which has been causing problems for us. Biolab must cool the 'Gravi 2' samples, and we are supporting NASA in an ultrasonic experiment.
Even before Alexander Gerst's mission, our colleagues across Europe and at 'Mission Control Oberpfaffenhofen' are hard at work!