NASA flight director "thoroughly impressed" with ESA's Columbus Control Centre

Rick LaBrode, NASA flight director
18 February 2008

Rick LaBrode, an experienced NASA flight director, has been working at ESA's Columbus Control Centre during STS-122. He says he has been thoroughly impressed with the knowledge and problem-solving ability displayed by his new colleagues at Col CC.

Editor's note: NASA's Rick LaBrode, a qualified Shuttle and ISS flight director, has been working on console with the 'new guys' at ESA's Columbus Control Centre during STS-122 to provide advice and face-to-face liaison between ESA and NASA. LaBrode's next assignment is shuttle mission STS-123, which will deliver Japan's science lab to the ISS. He was scheduled to return to Houston after completion of the Shuttle's docked phase, on Flight Day 11 (17 February). Before departure, he agreed to answer questions together with ESA's Roland Luettgens, the senior ESA mission director working at Col CC.

Q. How has the overall cooperation between the two agencies been during Columbus delivery?

ESA Mission Director Roland Luettgens at Columbus Control Centre
ESA Mission Director Roland Luettgens

Rick LaBrode: I can definitely confirm that everything went quite well. Folks worked quite well together and spent a lot of time working several issues and overall I am tremendously pleased.

Roland Luettgens: Columbus and the ISS are complex systems and operating these from the ground always present unplanned challenges. The cooperation was excellent and I can say that the two mission control teams - at ESA and NASA - have been integrated quite well.

Q. Were there challenges at NASA to start working with Col CC as a full partner control centre?

LaBrode: Yes - it took a lot of work. We started working with the Europeans seven years ago. With a new partner for ISS control, there is always a learning curve, new routines, new procedures to learn and practise. We had to learn how the Europeans worked, their operational philosophy, their working habits - even their working hours and schedules. We had been used to working with the Russians at the ISS Mission Control Centre in Moscow, so at NASA we had to get used to a different working relationship. One big difference with Col CC is that the flight control teams and engineers here are very comfortable working in English, so we don't need translators - which is more common with the Russians.

Luettgens: We also went through a great deal of preparation with NASA; training simulations, developing and practising procedures. It's been a lot of work.

Q. Were there any critical moments during Columbus delivery that ESA and NASA had to solve jointly?

I can say that I am thoroughly impressed with Columbus Control Centre and the staff here from both ESA and the German space agency DLR.

LaBrode: Yes! The installation of Columbus itself, the module activation - there were a number of issues. But I must say most of these were worked and solved at Columbus Control Centre on the ESA side. The team here did very well. When necessary, Col CC brought in the engineers they needed and worked the issue.

Luettgens: With the mission extension and switch of EVA assignments, we had to replan several times; replanning the operations schedule is one of the most complex activities you have to do. This required really close cooperation between the two agencies and I can confirm that everything went great. Every mission has challenges and issues for which you can't plan. I'm proud to say we achieved all mission objectives plus some additional targets.

Q. Are there any ESA mission operations experts similarly located at the Houston, Johnson or Huntsville control centres?

LaBrode: Not that I know of; I know there are some ESA programme manager guys and some specialist engineers, but no one for mission operations.

Q. How would you rate the new ESA control centre's performance, overall, on a scale of 1 to 10?

Every mission has challenges and issues for which you can't plan. I'm proud to say we achieved all mission objectives plus some additional targets.

LaBrode: Well, keep in mind that the best I would even give Houston is a '9' because in this business you can always do better - you're never perfect '10'. Having said that, I think the folks here at Columbus Control Centre have achieved a satisfactory '7'- they are new at this and still learning, so there are still ways to do better but that will come with time and experience.

Q. Any final words?

LaBrode: I can say that I am thoroughly impressed with Columbus Control Centre and the staff here from both ESA and the German space agency DLR - they are knowledgeable and have maintained a professional and effective composure under some tight situations.

Luettgens: It feels great to be in space with Columbus and we are looking forward to getting on with science. It's a great pleasure to be supporting this mission.

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