Airbus Defence and Space

The function of the ‘Eurocom’ in Oberpfaffenhofen is comparable to that of NASA’s ‘Capcom’ (Capsule Communicator – recipient of the famous message “Houston, we have a problem”): it is through the Eurocom that contact is established with the astronauts and cosmonauts in orbit. Since the Columbus laboratory went into service, the Eurocom has been handling these flight control tasks 24 hours a day. “We work in three shifts, known as Orbit 1, 2 and 3,” explains Peter Eichler, “and we’re linked precisely to the astronauts’ working hours.”

“A typical astronaut’s day on the ISS starts with breakfast at about seven o’clock,” says Peter. “This is followed by the daily planning conference, in which we go through important items or changes to the day’s plans with the astronauts. The Orbit 1 shift is thus in action from 5am to 1pm Incidentally, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is the time that applies for the astronauts and therefore also for the control centre. Approximately when the astronauts are taking their lunch break from 1pm, the Orbit 2 shift takes over. The astronauts’ working day ends at around 7pm, again with a regular evening planning conference. This is followed by the evening meal, after which they sleep from 9.30pm to 6am. The night shift, Orbit 3, takes over from 9pm with a smaller team, as Eurocoms are only on call while the astronauts are asleep. The only exception is when a Shuttle is docked with the ISS, as was the case for the 1E mission quite recently, and then we are on duty round the clock. Then the crew’s waking and sleeping times, and with them our shift hours, may change completely because everything has to adapt to the time schedule of the Shuttle flight.”

The Capcom or Eurocom is traditionally the only flight controller on the ground to communicate with the astronauts. The function evolved out of the experience gained by the United States in its early phases of manned spaceflight. At that time, NASA considered it very important that all communications with the astronauts should take place via a single person in the mission control centre.

The communication lines for the astronauts and the ground crew are clearly defined, as Peter explains: “For anything to do with the ISS in general or the equipment on the US section of the Station, they call Houston. They call Moscow for the Russian section, and when it comes to the European elements the astronauts call the Eurocom as ‘Munich’ – that is, our team.”

Peter had to undergo a nine-month training programme, including a stay in Houston, for his highly specialised task. “My work as an astronaut trainer for the Columbus communication system and the thermal control system, which I have been doing since 1999, is of course a great help,” affirms the engineering graduate, who worked in Europe and the USA as a specialist on space debris for many years before joining Airbus Defence and Space. “I act as a Eurocom for 50% of the time and as an astronaut trainer for the other 50%. As a result, I not only know the Columbus systems very well in terms of their technology, but I am also personally acquainted with all the astronauts and cosmonauts from the training programme. This is very helpful in building up a relationship of trust.”

The Eurocom team currently consists of seven people, one of whom is Norbert Brauer, another colleague from Airbus Defence and Space. “The team is made up exclusively of astronauts, astronaut trainers or ESA/DLR personnel from the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, because they are the ones who are most familiar with the systems and equipment and can best size up any given situation,” continues Peter. “Our communications are not always verbal, by the way. If we need to pass on a larger volume of information, we sometimes send the astronauts an e-mail. They have separate e-mail addresses for work and for private messages. All work-related information is of course checked beforehand, to ensure that only really necessary and correct information is sent to the ISS.”

The Eurocoms regard themselves as the ISS astronauts’ representatives at the control centre. “As the ‘relay station’ for communications with the ISS, we are not only the astronauts’ mouthpiece, but also represent their interests. This is why we Eurocoms report directly to ESA’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne,” says Peter. “It is sometimes important to make the astronauts’ interests clear on the ground, and we’re there to do that.”

The work of Eurocoms and astronaut trainers calls for flexibility and mobility, as it involves frequent travelling between Bremen and the centres in Oberpfaffenhofen and Cologne. “That’s perhaps the only disadvantage,” concedes Peter. “I have to do so much travelling. Apart from that, though, it’s a very exciting and varied task. An astronaut’s job is undoubtedly the most exciting in the world. But for me, working as a Eurocom is definitely the second-most exciting career.”

The ISS will have a service life of between 10 and 15 years, and Eurocoms will be needed throughout that time. “Of course, it’s always particularly exciting when there is an ESA astronaut on board the ISS, and that’s going to happen more frequently in future. From next year, the crew will be increased from three to six members, and that’s bound to give us plenty of work,” says Peter, happily anticipating the challenges ahead.

International Space StationColumbus