CryoSat-2 Project Manager: interview with Richard Francis

08/02/2010 637 views
ESA / Applications / Observing the Earth / CryoSat

Richard Francis has been responsible for managing ESA's CryoSat Project since the decision was made to rebuild the satellite following the loss of the original CryoSat in 2005. Prior to his role as Project Manager, he was in charge of the CryoSat mission design as System Manager.

Richard Francis, a British national, joined ESA's European Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands in 1983 to work in the ERS-1 project team. He continued to support that mission throughout its life in orbit and has also worked on ERS-2, Envisat and MetOp. He joined the CryoSat team in 1999 when the mission was selected for implementation.

Richard obtained his PhD in Space Physics from Sheffield University in England in 1977. Before joining ESA, he worked at British Aerospace in Bristol, where his responsibilities included investigating the feasibility of an advanced European microwave remote-sensing satellite – studies that helped lead to the development of ERS-1.

ESA: You have been involved in the CryoSat mission since it was selected in 1999, how has your role changed over the years?

Richard Francis

1999! It seems so long ago now – over 10 years. At that time the idea was to build smaller missions than we had been doing up until then, which could focus on specific issues and where we could break the pattern of taking about a decade to reach orbit. We did pretty well, considering that we were pioneering a new way of doing things, and launched the first CryoSat after 6 years. We all know what happened next.

We built the next one much more quickly – it's now less than four years since we started, but you have to remember the satellite had been in storage for about nine months of that time, waiting for the availability of a launcher.

You asked about my role. Well, I was the Mission and System Manager for the first CryoSat, meaning that, in practice, I was the glue that kept the whole project in one piece. It meant that I had my fingers in every part of it, from arcane details of how little bits worked, through to keeping up with the overall scientific approach to using the eventual data products.

For CryoSat-2 I am the Project Manager. It's not such a big step. I still keep the whole thing on the straight and narrow, but now I have the organisational responsibility as well. I enjoy the challenges and find it very rewarding. But, of course, I have a first-class project team. They may be few, but they're the best.

ESA: What have been the main challenges rebuilding the satellite following the loss of the original CryoSat?

Richard Francis

Many people think that CryoSat-2 is 'just a rebuild' and so it's dead easy. Things are never so straightforward. There were quite some technical changes, of course, but many of the problems when building a satellite come from unexpected things that go wrong – and, like any project, we've had our share of those. The problem with CryoSat-2 has always been the small team, both in ESA and in industry. It meant, in practice, that everybody has had to work very hard.

But, as I just mentioned, the small team we have are the best and we all benefit from an excellent team spirit. Whenever problems have arisen our approach with industry has been that we will solve it together. This sort of thing makes a big difference. CryoSat-2 is known in industry as a good project to work in, and I'm proud of that.

ESA: After the first satellite was lost, how did you go about starting again?

Richard Francis

I think it's difficult for an outsider to understand how devastating such a failure can be. I've seen it from the outside before – the loss of the original Cluster mission on Ariane 501 was a very public example. But to those who've spent a respectable part of their lives putting everything into creating something wonderful and technologically difficult, to learn, in slow-time, that it's all lost, the impact is crushing.

We got through the first hours thanks to team spirit – we quickly built a bond and promised ourselves we'd build it again. Within days this was converted to actions. There was immense goodwill towards the project and things went in parallel. On the scientific side the case for rebuilding was made in a very robust way. Politically and financially it was a matter of finding the means, and this was done. At the project level we just got down to a very busy period, establishing a 'shopping list' of potential improvements, rewriting all the contractual documents and negotiating prices.

In a way, the worst part was after we had the contract in place. We were back to square one: where we had recently had a shiny satellite ready to be launched, we now had to build all the pieces up from scratch. That first year was busy, and luckily so, as it took our minds off what we had lost.

ESA: What are the most rewarding aspects of your role as Project Manager?

Richard Francis

It's having the responsibility to make it all right again. I was deeply involved in the first satellite, but did not have responsibility for it. Now I do and I take that aspect very seriously.

ESA: Where will you be for launch?

Richard Francis

Rather unusually I will be at the control centre in ESA's European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Germany. It is conventional for the Project Manager to be at the launch site, but in this case the interaction with the launcher authority is at a very technical level – the communication is directly with the team manning the satellite test equipment and there is no mission control centre at the launch site. So, the natural interface there will be my Launch Campaign Manager, Bill Simpson, who is also responsible within my team for all satellite test activities.

This works out well because in fact my team is so small that all are needed at ESOC to fill the project roles in the mission control centre, including myself. So I will be on the 'back row' in the main control room, where I have the call sign 'Project Rep.' – and in this case I really do represent the project.

So no extended celebrations after launch for me – I'm on the A-team so after launch we still have a 10-hour stint in front of us before the B-team takes over. Then, after 12 hours we're back, so I'll have to be a bit careful!


Editor's note:

This is one in a series of interviews with a few of the key people that are involved in the CryoSat mission. Please check back as the list will be added to over the coming weeks.

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