Astronauts: Key actors in ATV development programme
Several European and American astronauts belong to the project management team of the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Europe's cargo spaceship for the International Space Station, and are supporting the development of the first flight model called Jules Verne.
Since 2001, French ESA astronaut Jean-François Clervoy, senior advisor to the ATV programme, and veteran NASA astronaut Steven Smith - who is ATV Launch Package Manager for NASA - work fulltime with the two dozen strong ATV management team at ESA's office in Les Mureaux, 50 km west of Paris, France. At NASA's Johnson Space Centre, in Houston, United States, three more astronauts - Barry Wilmore, Ron Garan and Eric Boe - participate in the ATV project as NASA astronaut representatives for ISS visiting vehicles.
"We are very happy to have NASA representative Steve Smith as a full member of our ATV team, he can follow our progress and see how we solve problems associated with the development of the first cargo spaceship built in Europe, it helps to build mutual confidence ", says Patrice Amadieu ATV deputy project manager.
Although people will not be launched on board an ATV, astronauts dressed in regular clothing, will be able to access cargo and systems - for up to six months - whilst the spacecraft is docked to the ISS. The dual challenge facing ATV is to fulfil both the demanding requirements of human spacecraft safety, as well as the critical robotics capabilities to perform automatic rendezvous and docking.
Taking into account human factors
"It is quite important to have astronauts involved in our development programme because we - as European engineers - have been used to working mainly with numbers, data and cold logics for developing efficient hardware and software", says Amadieu. "For ATV rendezvous and docking phase, it is crucial to know, from experienced astronauts, their perception of safety, their view on the ergonomics of vital displays and how they will react - in real time - in orbit if they are confronted with a hardware problem."
Each astronaut working with the ATV programme has a wide variety of different tasks and responsibilities. "Astronauts are not extraordinary people, but they bring a broader view to a programme", underlines Steve Smith who holds the second US record of seven spacewalks (also known as Extra Vehicular Activity, or EVA) over four NASA Shuttle flights.
For ATV development and the maiden Jules Verne mission planned in 2007, ESA astronaut Clervoy is supervising the various crew-related issues and concepts. Working with Russian and American counterparts, this flight test engineer and a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, is reviewing ATV crew procedures in use on board ISS. By defining the man-machine interfaces, Clervoy is also responsible for the design of the electronic displays and command panel used on board the Station during the rendezvous, docking and attached phases of the ATV cargo ship.
Even though ATV is a fully automated spaceship with a multiple-fault tolerant capability and can be monitored by ATV ground controllers in the Toulouse-based control centre, the ISS crew can initiate, on its own, the Collision Avoidance Manoeuvre to move the 20.7-tonne spaceship away from the Station during the rendezvous phase.
"Since the astronauts are not directly piloting the rendezvous, it is critical to select and layout - in a user-friendly manner - the essential dedicated commands on the Russian Service Module consoles, which are needed to give the possibility to interrupt ATV's approach if they consider their safety is at stake," says Clervoy who logged three Shuttle flights, including a re-supply mission of the Mir space station in 1997.
For some critical choices, Clervoy regularly invites his Russian and American astronaut colleagues to participate in tests and evaluation sessions, in order to reach a consensus on the crew operations. An example is the definition of the rendezvous safety corridors, which consist of a virtual funnel out of which the Station crew can reject the ATV during the final approach.
Working with the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Clervoy helped to define the ATV related special training programme that ISS crews will undergo at EAC. Since Jules Verne will be the first transportation vehicle in orbit under European responsibility, with a Control Centre in Europe, Clervoy worked with his ESA astronaut colleague, Philippe Perrin, to develop the ATV ground segment and the ISS crew/controllers interface in Toulouse. After providing 16 months of engineering support to ESA's Jules Verne project, Perrin left the European Astronaut Corps in May 2004 to become an Experimental Test Pilot with Airbus Industries.
NASA astronaut role
As for NASA astronaut Steven Smith, his role in the ESA team is quite different. "I am not here in the astronaut speciality anymore, on the contrary. As the ATV Launch Package Manager, I have to review all the exchanges about ATV between ESA, Russia and NASA with an overview on very different aspects, such as engineering details, operational procedures, business and finance, protocol etc." says Smith who plays a pivotal role between the two agencies ATV teams on both sides of the Atlantic ocean.
NASA bears the overall International Space Station integration and safety responsibility, including ATV, even though the European re-supply spaceship docks to the Russian side of ISS. At NASA more than one hundred people, mainly in Houston, are in some way involved in the ATV programme, but many of them dedicate nearly all their time to the ATV project.
"Sometimes I have to remind NASA people that our job is not to interfere with ESA ATV design, but one of my main objectives is to show that NASA is an asset in helping to integrate ATV in the Space Station and in making it safer", says Smith who flew a Hubble servicing mission with Clervoy in 1999.
Because ATV is a robotic and complex re-supply spaceship for the Space Station, it has to be approved by several countries and astronauts whose lives are at stake when they are in orbit waiting for ATV arrival.
Although no Russian cosmonaut is based in Europe for supporting ATV, two space veterans Valeri Ryumin and Sergei Krikalev are playing a key role on the Russian side of the ATV programme.
Ryumin, who flew in space four times, is the ISS and ATV integration manager of the Russian space company Energia, in Korolev, near Moscow, where the ATV crew consoles, the docking mechanism, the refuelling system and the associated electronics are built. As for Krikalev, a veteran of five spaceflights, he is working closely with his ESA counterpart Clervoy. Both Krikalev and Clervoy are active astronauts.
"It's amazing to work in Les Mureaux with my European colleagues", says Smith. "I see the same passion for space challenges in both cultures and ATV engineers have the same approach to safety as we do at NASA, with the same care!"