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Technology, mosquitoes and mangoes

An aerospace engineer’s life in the rainforest

The Ariane 5 ES launcher photographed on 17 February 2011 during transfer from the Final Assembly Building (BAF to the launch Zone (ZL-3), at the Ariane Launch Complex no. 3 (ELA-3) of the Guiana Space Centre. (© ESA – S. Corvaja 2011) 
The Ariane 5 ES launcher photographed on 17 February 2011 during transfer from the Final Assembly Building (BAF to the launch Zone (ZL-3), at the Ariane Launch Complex no. 3 (ELA-3) of the Guiana Space Centre. (© ESA – S. Corvaja 2011)

 

Bremen-based systems engineer Maayan Windmuller spends several months each year in Kourou preparing the upper stages of the Ariane for launch.

The impressive launch pad towers well over 50 metres above a vast landscape dominated entirely by rainforest. On board the 200th Ariane rocket is the ATV-2 ‘Johannes Kepler’ re-supply vehicle – the heaviest payload ever transported by an Ariane. It is a hot sunny day in Kourou (35°C) and extremely humid. The countdown is underway. In the European spaceport’s secure bunker, all the engineers glued to the control centre’s screens can do now is wait. At minus seven minutes, control is handed over to the computer systems. The tiniest data anomaly would immediately cause the launch to be aborted. The space specialists are tense and concentrated, as the adrenaline levels rise inexorably. 

The EPS upper stage is hoisted out of its transport container to be integrated into the full Ariane 5 assembly in Kourou. Maayan Windmuller is responsible for assembling and testing the EPS as part of the launch preparations in Kourou. 
The EPS upper stage is hoisted out of its transport container to be integrated into the full Ariane 5 assembly in Kourou. Maayan Windmuller is responsible for assembling and testing the EPS as part of the launch preparations in Kourou.

 

38-year-old Maayan, responsible for the systems on the re-ignitable EPS upper stage, is no exception – as he focuses on the green light on the screens, listening out for the announcements on wind, weather and solar flares. Ideal conditions. Suddenly, at minus four minutes, the countdown is aborted. In the next few seconds, Maayan turns over in his mind what might have gone wrong: “What’s happened? Any chance of a launch today? No, so it’s from the top again tomorrow.” The tension eases. For the moment at least.

The EPS upper stage is brought into position on the Ariane launcher. Maayan keeps a watchful eye on this critical activity.  

What sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie is all in a day’s work for the aerospace engineer, who spends between two and five months a year in Kourou, French Guiana. His role is to conduct launch preparations for the Ariane upper stages – the EPS (Étage à Propergols Stockables – storable propellant stage) and ESC-A (Étage Supérieur Cryotechnique Type A – cryogenic stage). The conditions are far from easy, but Maayan wouldn’t swap his job for the world: “Working right on the launch pad, as part of an international team, in an exciting place and for a project that is anything but run-of-the-mill – that’s precisely why, back in 2005, I went for the systems engineering job!” Although he does concede: “It’s true that we work under great stress at times and often put in overtime.” During the countdown phase, mental stress and adrenaline rushes are nothing out of the ordinary – but Maayan enjoys the buzz he gets from the job. “New challenges pop up all the time – particularly when things aren’t running as they should,” he says. If the aborted launch is due to a malfunction in their systems, the engineers work flat-out to identify the problem.

The EPS upper stage is brought into position on the Ariane launcher. Maayan keeps a watchful eye on this critical activity.

 

The second launch attempt of the ATV-2 ‘Johannes Kepler’ on 16 February 2011 also saw the upper-stage team confronted with a fraught situation 20 minutes before the end of the countdown. Given the temperature conditions at the time of launch, the team feared that they would not be able to maintain the minimum pressure of the helium tanks by just a fraction. As soon as the automatic sequence kicked in that would have meant an abort. “A decision had to be taken quickly whether we could alter the threshold,” recalls Mayaan. Options and risks were weighed up, calculations done, empirical data compared and the decision to go for a waiver taken in a telephone conference. “After just ten minutes and formal sign-off from all those responsible in Kourou, the new data were entered into the system. A good decision, since ultimately the bar pressure figure came within a few decimal points of reaching the minimum pressure limit.”

With technical responsibility for the EPS upper stage resting on their shoulders before the launch of the Ariane 5, the Systems Engineering team members show no signs of tension. (Maayan can be seen on the far left.)  
With technical responsibility for the EPS upper stage resting on their shoulders before the launch of the Ariane 5, the Systems Engineering team members show no signs of tension. (Maayan can be seen on the far left.)

 

Thanks to the foresight and swift action taken by all involved, the 200th Ariane launch was a complete success. ATV-2 ‘Johannes Kepler’ was released into the orbital path of the International Space Station, successfully docking with the ISS just under a week later. “Regardless of whether it runs smoothly or you encounter problems – every Ariane launch is nerve-racking,” asserts Mayaan. “The tension quickly evaporates, and after the launch party and ensuing initial analysis of data on the morning after, you’re quickly back into the normal swing of things.”

The Centre Spatial Gyanais (CSG) spaceport is located approximately 20 km outside the city of Kourou. Airbus Defence and Space engineer Mayaan is shown here in his 'workplace with a view'.  

The Centre Spatial Gyanais (CSG) spaceport is located approximately 20 km outside the city of Kourou. Airbus Defence and Space engineer Mayaan is shown here in his ‘workplace with a view’. 

 

It is not easy to escape the stressful everyday existence of working life in Kourou. The Centre Spatial Gyanais (CSG) spaceport in the middle of the rainforest in French Guiana takes some getting used to for a European – and not just because of the extremely humid and hot climate to which you first need to acclimatise. “Actually there’s not that much here,” says Maayan. “We spend most of the time with colleagues, sometimes going for a meal, a swim or trekking through the rainforest – work permitting.” You cannot afford to be squeamish either: “There are snakes and loads of creepy-crawlies here." But it’s the mosquitoes that are the most annoying: “During the rainy season you cannot even get from the flat to your car without being bitten at least once. You’re always covered in bites!” However, there is one thing he always looks forward to when he comes out to Kourou: “The fruit! I’ve never eaten such tasty, fresh mangoes, papayas and pineapples as I have here!”

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