"All along the launch tower"

Launch tower
13 May 2003

Mars Express launch diary 9

The spacecraft preparations in the main integration facilities have been progressing rapidly over the last couple of weeks, reports Michael Witting, Mars Express launch campaign manager, this week from Baikonur.

"We have successfully completed all our stand-alone testing and the stress on the team has been relieved over the past few days. The solar arrays are on, the spacecraft has been neatly wrapped in its external thermal insulation foil (Multi Layer Insulation or MLI) - it has now become a real beauty!

"In the meantime we've also been setting the scene out at the launch pad, where we will carry out the final preparations of the spacecraft once it sits on top of the rocket for the last five days prior to launch. Driving to the launch pad from our hotel is an adventure in itself. The pad is located about 50 km away from the hotel and around 25 km from the main spacecraft integration facilities where we've been working so far, and the road conditions what we are used to.

"As we approach the launch pad area, we pass the viewing site, from which most of the visitors will watch the launch. It's only 1.5 km from where the rocket will lift off, which will be an awesome sight to see it climbing up into the skies!

Braving the elements

"Most of us will then be in the Mars Express Control Centre, commonly called the 'bunker'. This is underground, less than 150 m from the launch tower. As we climb down the stairs into the control room, I understand where it got its name from: the space inside is very cramped and its thick concrete walls are like a World War II bomb shelter. So this is where we will control the final hours of our spacecraft on planet Earth.

"Time to start work now. We have to bring some electronic equipment and some cables to the top of the launch tower. This will be the connection through which our computers in the bunker will talk to the spacecraft in the final hours, and we need to make sure that everything will work on the day. A small elevator brings us up to the top of the tower, where everything seems to constantly rock.

"As we get out of the lift, things get worse: we're on a platform in open air, some 30 m above the ground, and the handrails barely reach the level of my hips. We must have force 4-5 wind, it's cold, and I suddenly feel like I am on a sailing boat in a storm.

"It takes us about five hours to install all our equipment up here and check all the connections to the bunker. A good end to difficult working day!

"As the wind finally calms down, I remember one of the most emotional moments of my professional life. Three years ago, during the Cluster II launch campaign, we were working on the very same launch tower, when suddenly a distant rumble interrupted work and everybody looked up. A Proton rocket carrying the first Russian module for the International Space Station had just taken off, some 50 km from us, and we could see it as a small point passing overhead. We brought the Cluster II mission to a good end then, and we are all heading towards a common goal now - the successful launch of Mars Express!

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