Touch down on Mars...Thomas Walloschek on his role as ExoMars project engineer

Thomas, how did you come to join ESA?

I started my career in industry in 2000 working as a propulsion system engineer on ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle). As technician, I was responsible for finalising the design of the propulsion system qualification model and then for the complete propulsion qualification test campaign. This was a very challenging and interesting task as a first job.

My other major positions in industry before ESA were in the field of reentry vehicles, where I was a System Engineer for the Payload Retrieval System (PARES) and Project Manager for the Inflatable Reentry Demonstrator (IRDT).

I moved to ESA in 2006 as Propulsion System Engineer in the Technical Support Directorate. Here I supported ATV for reviews and technical development activities. To work on the ESA project side as well as on the customer side was a very good experience.

What did you study?

I received a German Engineering Diploma in Aeronautical and Space Flight Engineering from the University of Stuttgart and a Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Tennessee Space Institute, USA.

My German studies provided me with a solid technical basis in a large variety of engineering subjects, from thermo-dynamics, fluid-dynamics, over electrical, mechanical and propulsion engineering with a specialisation in space systems and flight mechanics and control. This provided me with a good understanding of system engineering. My studies in the US concentrated a bit more on the deepening of my knowledge in the fields of spacecraft and satellite technologies and design and propulsion systems.

What were the most important things you learnt on the job?

During my assignments in industry and ESA I learnt how important it is to have some knowledge from all disciplines to understand how a change in one field can influence another. During my work I of course also had to learn to understand the dynamics of a project life cycle and its programmatic boundary conditions to actually successfully run a project. I had to master the transfer of my theoretical technical knowledge gained during my studies to the actual daily work environment when building real hardware.

To support me in mastering the increasing responsibilities at my work, I also took several professional development courses in the fields of system engineering, AIV and project management. This helped me to effectively and efficiently manage and interact with industry as well as to supervise the support staff in my field of responsibility.

Which way has your career taken since you joined ESA in 2006?

In 2007 I was asked if I wanted to join as integrated support the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) project of the Launcher Directorate as Functional Payload Engineer. The really interesting part was the diversity of the tasks and new technologies under my responsibility like AIV and Operations, Aerodynamics, Aerothermodynamics, Descent Landing and Recovery System including propulsion and flaps. I returned to TEC at the end of 2009 and supported the High Thrust Engine Demonstrator project of the Launcher Directorate as Propulsion System Engineer.

At the beginning of 2011 I changed to the Science Directorate and joined the ExoMars Project, where I am the Propulsion and Structural System Engineer responsible for the complete project.

Mars projects sound particularly fascinating…

Yes, indeed they are. I like my work as a project engineer on ExoMars very much since it is interesting and always challenging. ExoMars gives me the opportunity to work on more than just one space vehicle at the same time. It includes three vehicles: the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) for a launch in 2016 and a joint ESA/ NASA rover module (RM) to be launched in 2018. Each one of the three vehicles has completely different requirements, and I can actively influence the design and control the work under my responsibility in direct contact and cooperation with industry.

What is ExoMars' scientific 'mission'?

The Trace Gas Orbiter is a science and data relay satellite designed to transport the EDM to Mars. It will then enter a Mars orbit using an aerobraking manoeuvre for a scientific mission, to investigate the Mars atmosphere using ESA and NASA instrument payloads. The TGO will serve as a telemetry relay satellite for future missions up to 2022, like the 2018 joined rover mission for example.

The EDM shall demonstrate Europe's capability to land a controlled payload successfully on the surface of Mars The demonstrated entry descent and landing technologies (such as heat shield, GNC, parachutes, propulsion, crushable structures) will be the basis for future European lander missions to Mars.

The joint rover will have several European instruments on board, and for the first time a rover will have the capability of drilling up to 2 metres into the soil of Mars.

And what responsibilities does this involve?

As project engineer the major part of my work actually takes place before a launch campaign. The launch campaign itself is a period of 3 to 5 months at the end of the development and qualification phases of a project, where the final simulations and system tests take place and the spacecraft is finally mated to the launcher.

But before the launch campaign there are several years of design and development work. As project engineer I am involved from the first idea of a mission to the preliminary design, which is then presented to the delegates and member states for approval and subscription. Once the project has been approved, the project engineer is involved in the detailed design, development and qualification phases of a project up to launch.

That sounds like a long journey… what does your job involve on a daily basis?

As a project engineer the technical and management part of the work is somewhat fluent and cannot always be clearly distinguished. The project engineer is involved in the definition of the major mission and system requirements as well as statement of works, which are the baseline of the contracts for industry and their work. At ESA we normally give out and control contracts to the prime industry and its sub-contractors, which are the executing institutions.

I support our management on a daily basis by supervising the work of industry to make sure cost and schedule is met in the areas of our responsibility, or by supporting the creation of statement of works for industry. I follow up the progress of technical work as well as the procurement process of industry.

I am also coordinating ESA colleagues from the Technical Support Directorate, who support me with their technical expertise as needed. I’m also involved in the interaction with other sites like the operations team, to take the operational requirements into account for the design of the spacecraft to ground interfaces.

To be able to follow up the industry work properly, official progress meetings are held on a regular basis every 4 to 8 weeks on all levels. As for the ExoMars project, we stay in regular contact with the American partners from NASA and JPL mainly for the payloads for TGO and the joined rover via telecons or joint working group meetings. In principle one can say a meeting or telecon takes place on a daily basis, as well as interaction with internal and external partners and other sites.

You mentioned that you hold 'progess meetings'. What exactly is their purpose?

To check the design status and schedule of a project we follow a defined development logic with formal review milestones on system, sub-system and major equipment or component levels. The reviewer’s comments are discussed in collocations, face-to-face meetings, mostly on the contractor’s premises under review. The major review milestones are:

  • System Requirements Review , where the major requirements are challenged to make sure they describe what is actually wanted
  • Preliminary Design Review, where the feasibility, major specifications and budgets are more deeply defined
  • Critical Design Review, which gives the official go ahead for the actual hardware manufacturing and qualification process at the end of the detailed design phase
  • the Qualification Review, sometimes combined with Acceptance Review, where the proper qualification and manufacturing of the hardware is confirmed and accepted
  • the Launch Readiness Review before launch.

This process ensures that issues are detected and solved as early as possible within a project life cycle. To avoid issues and problems from evolving, I am of course in contact with industry on a daily basis to provide the expertise gained in the various ESA missions I have done before. I support the solution finding process of technical challenges in close cooperation with industry. After launch and for first on orbit acquisition of the spacecraft the project normally is handed over to the operations team.

In long term science missions, the project engineer can also be involved during critical on orbit operations when her/his sub-systems are affected. Involvement in anomaly investigations is also quite common.

Depending on the project and its progress, how often and where do you need to travel to?

With the progress of the detailed design of the project and increasing number of tests, I sometimes have to travel once or twice a week. We try to increase the use of web based communications but it is also very important to have personal contact with industry during official progress meetings for example. As project engineer, I also follow the development and qualification test campaigns closely. As soon as testing and hardware is involved, one has to be where the things happen.

As project engineer, at the moment I am more involved in the design and development of the actual spacecrafts and in the definition of the interfaces to instruments. There are also dedicated instrument engineers in the team. During the manufacturing, assembly, integration and testing (MAIT) phases of a project I normally have to be physically present at several occasions at the industry sites to follow up the work and tests performed as closely as possible. Examples of this include the release of major hardware for manufacturing and the acceptance of delivered hardware, as well as major development and qualification tests in the areas of my responsibility.

The travel destinations at the moment are various European countries but also others like Israel or the USA.

Which recommendations would you give to students or young graduates if they are interested in working at ESA?

For graduates we do have a very good young graduate trainee programme, which gives a pretty good insight into the life at ESA and provides a good understanding of the space business environment. From my experience, I can also recommend gaining some experience in industry before joining ESA. This helps tremendously in the interaction with industry and understanding of the industrial boundary conditions. I can recommend that if you like what you have found out so far about ESA, do apply! It is a great work environment, especially when you are interested in working in an international surrounding with much cultural diversity!

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