As ESA's Launch Campaign Manager for GOCE, Stefano Capitanio is currently at the Russian Plesetsk Cosmodrome overseeing preparations for launch on 16 March 2009. In an interview, Stefano provides insight into what it takes to launch the satellite.
Stefano Capitanio, an Italian national, has been working at ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands since 1988. He started in ESA's Directorate of Technical and Quality Management providing support to Science and Earth Observation missions and moved over to the Directorate of Earth Observation Programmes in 2000.
Stefano graduated from the University of Rome with a Masters degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Before joining ESA, he worked at FIAR in Italy and at McDonnell Douglas Astronautics in the US.
ESA: What is a 'launch campaign' and what does your job entail?
The launch campaign is a term that covers all the general activities around the launch of a satellite. It begins with the transportation of the satellite to the launch site and ends around one week after launch when all the support equipment has been shipped back to ESA and Thales Alenia Space in Italy.
In broad and simple terms launch campaign activities include reassembly of the spacecraft after transportation, electrical and functional testing to ensure that all is well after the long journey to the launch site, mating with the launcher, encapsulation in the launcher fairing and roll out to the launch pad. When you consider that, along with the spacecraft, we have about 20 containers of support equipment that are shipped by plane and train a lot of effort is also put into the logistics of organising a launch campaign. As Launch Campaign Manager, I am responsible for the satellite from ESA's side, I coordinate the various parties involved in the campaign and act as a formal interface to the Russian launcher authorities.
ESA: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Well, it would be obvious to say lift-off, final separation from the launcher and successful injection into orbit – however, there have been many rewarding intermediate steps before we get there. Personally, I find it very rewarding to create and maintain the excellent team spirit we have between all the involved parties during the long campaign. In fact, I consider this one of the most important aspects of my job. I sometimes compare a launch campaign to a long trip with a lot of people in a small boat – you are in each other's company 24 hours a day. In Plesetsk, because of the various restrictions, we are fairly confined so team spirit is at the top of my agenda.
ESA: Can you tell us a little about what the Plesetsk launch site is like?
Plesetsk is a military base so we are very limited in where we can go and what we can do. In the actual city we can only walk around an area about 1000 m x 300 m! Despite the restrictions, some bars, restaurants and sporting facilities are included in the area so there is some form of entertainment.
ESA: How many people are there working on launch preparations, are they all from ESA?
Many parties have a role to play during a launch campaign. Besides the team from ESA, we have teams from our Prime Contractor Thales Alenia Space in Italy, the Launcher Provider Eurockot, the Launcher Prime Contractor Khrunichev and the Russian Space Force who operates the launcher. As you can imagine, it is a large and complex set-up in a very confined environment. In terms of numbers of people involved – there are more than 50 of us involved.
ESA: The launch of GOCE was delayed last autumn, has this made any difference to the preparations you are currently carrying out?
As a result of the launch delay, the spacecraft was in storage for around four months. It was stored in its dedicated container and was monitored remotely through a surveillance system, which we installed. This current campaign is very similar to the earlier one – with the exception of a few extra tests and refurbishment on some components.
ESA: Where will you be for launch?
I will be in the Mission Control Centre at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. My role will be to support ESA's GOCE Project Manager Danilo Muzi in the key steps to be accomplished before lift-off.
This is one in a series of interviews with a few of the key people that are involved in the GOCE mission. Please check back as the list will be added to over the coming weeks.