ESA's spacecraft managers: the 'Right Stuff'

Spacecraft Operations Managers: The right stuff at ESA
Spacecraft Operations Managers at ESOC

They have a passion for space and are among the best engineers anywhere, managing missions worth billions of euro. But above all, ESA's Spacecraft Operations Managers are team leaders, working to motivate people and manage complex systems on the cutting edge of human knowledge.

The successful launch and operation of any ESA mission requires a multi-disciplinary team working across the agency and supported by industry and academia. However, it is the Spacecraft Operations Manager, the ubiquitous 'SOM', who is immediately responsible for day-to-day flight activities and for solving the myriad problems that inevitably arise when complex satellites voyage into space.

Today, ESA operates 13 satellites from ESOC, the agency's European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany, with seven more missions in preparation for launch. The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV)-series of missions and the Columbus science lab on the ISS are operated in cooperation with the French space agency CNES and the German Aerospace Center from control centres located at Toulouse and Oberpfaffenhofen, respectively; the Proba-series of missions are controlled from Redu Centre, Belgium.

Some two dozen men and women are presently working as SOMs or mission directors on current and future missions, comprising some of the most talented and qualified engineers in Europe. A SOM is assigned to each ESA mission, and his/her first task is to build up the Flight Control Team, a group of spacecraft engineers assigned to each of the mission's specialist areas, including attitude and orbit control, power and thermal and on-board computer systems.

SOMs are team leaders

My life as a 'SOM': Elsa Montagnon and her projects

"In space, teamwork is crucial to success. The stakes are high, missions can be valued in the billions of euro and the scientific data may be literally irreplaceable. The Spacecraft Operations Manager builds a team and assumes responsibility – and when problems happen, time is critical and solutions unobvious, it's the SOM and his or her team who take the lead," says Paolo Ferri, Head of ESA's Missions Operations Department at ESOC. 

In 2006, Alan Smith retired from ESA as a senior flight director after 30 years at ESOC and 41 years total in the space business. In an interview that year, he described what it takes to be a great SOM: "You've got to have good people skills, and be able to lead a team. You've got to motivate your team of perhaps six or eight engineers and that can be a challenge when a mission gets routine. And all missions experience problems that you just don't hear about – but they get solved."

Smith added, "Someone has to take responsibility and make a decision, and that's the SOM."

Profiles: Spacecraft Operations Managers

Click 'Continue' below to read short profiles of several of the SOMs now working at ESA.

Micha Schmidt

Micha Schmidt is SOM for Herschel, which launched in May 2009, together with Planck.

A job like no other...Micha Schmidt on his career @ ESA

Schmidt has a degree in aerospace engineering and joined ESA in 1992. Two years before his mission's launch, he was already assembling the Flight Control Team at ESOC and helping define future operational procedures and the overall ground segment (the hardware, software and systems on the ground) that supports the mission.

At launch Herschel became the largest space telescope of its kind. Its 3.5-metre diameter mirror is collecting long-wavelength infrared radiation from some of the coolest and most distant objects in the Universe.

Schmidt says he enjoys the international mixture of the team at ESA, and that the Flight Control Team is "a bunch of knowledgeable guys I'm absolutely confident in."

CryoSat: re-flying a lost mission

N. Mardle, Cryosat SOM
Nic Mardle

In 2005, the first CryoSat was lost shortly after lift off due to launcher failure.  ESA and the science community supported the construction of a replacement satellite, highlighting the crucial importance of the mission. CryoSat II has been in orbit since April 2010, and is delivering a wealth of data, helping scientists determine whether Arctic ice masses are thinning due to global warming.

Nic Mardle is from England, and she joined ESA in 2003 as SOM for the original CryoSat; she brought to the Agency years or prior experience working for space industry in the UK, Italy and Australia.

She says that, normally, as an operations engineer, properly controlling the satellite is paramount and the scientific or commercial returns are less obvious. "But CryoSat-2 is the first satellite I've worked on where I also feel a strong commitment to the science goals of the mission," says Mardle.

"The results that will come from CryoSat are crucially important for our understanding of climate change and I am really motivated to help make the mission a success."

Past missions, continuing success

Claudio Sollazzo, Huygens Spacecraft Operations Manager

As SOM for the Huygens lander portion of the ESA/NASA Cassini-Huygens mission, Claudio Sollazzo headed a seven-person Flight Control Team spread between ESOC and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California.

The mission ended when the Hyugens probe made a spectacular touch-down on Saturn's moon Titan in January 2005, and Sollazzo's long association with the mission (14 years) makes him one of the central figures behind Huygens' success.

Originally from Naples, Italy, Sollazzo joined ESA in 1985, after studying astrophysics. He says having served as a SOM really sticks to you and becomes a permanent part of your professional life – even when your mission is over. "One could say, 'Once a SOM, always a SOM'. You maintain wonderful and endearing memories of a job – hopefully – well done, and afterwards you must try and apply your hard-earned experience to another mission."

In 2006, he was assigned to Columbus Control Centre to take up duties as Mission Director helping oversee the operation of ESA's Columbus lab on the International Space Station.

Cluster boosts scientific understanding of Earth's space environment

Juergen Volpp

Juergen Volpp is SOM for Cluster, a sophisticated magnetospheric mission comprising four identical spacecraft flying in formation and gathering data on how the solar wind affects the Earth.

Volpp studied physics in Heidelberg and helped to design the first European remote sensing satellite, ERS-1, before joining ESA in 1990; he has since worked on several scientific missions including Spacelab. He says the highlights of his job include working with a 'well-mixed' flight control team comprising many nationalities and young engineers as well as 'old timers'.

"The Cluster team spirit is strong and the level of cross-training is high; the individuals of this relatively small team are very motivated and there is no need to give directives; defining a common goal with a minimum of coordination is sufficient," says Volpp.

He also points to space research as a major inspiration: "Monitoring Earth climate and the atmospheres of other planets helps to understand the mechanisms causing atmospheric changes. Astronomy is an essential part of human culture. ESA's science programme enables European scientists to play a leading role in research into the fundamental laws of physics and cosmology."

All missions eventually end

O. Camino
Octavio Camino

Until 2006, Octavio Camino was SOM for SMART-1, ESA's first Moon mission. SMART-1 gathered much new scientific information about our nearest neighbour, and the mission also served as a technology demonstrator using a next-generation solar-powered electronic propulsion engine.

Camino comes from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in Spain, and joined ESA in 1992 after obtaining a master's degree in telecommunications. He describes the SMART-1 flight control team as "motivated, innovative and flexible," and pointed to the "ever-changing and challenging environment of space operations" as one of the most enjoyable aspects of his job.

"Exploring space is today more than an inspirational need for society; it is an indispensable tool for European policies ranging from the strategic need for providing and enabling European access to space, research and safety, to ensuring technological capabilities to develop and sustain Europe's industrial technology advantage in worldwide competition," he says.

The SMART-1 mission ended on 3 September 2006 when it underwent a controlled impact with the Moon, an event that itself provided additional opportunities for ground-based observers to learn about the Moon's surface. Camino was subsequently reassigned as SOM for Venus Express.

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