Airbus Defence and Space

Two years at the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

There was lots of work to do in Bremen and the pressure to meet deadlines was high. So a group of machine fitters from the Ariane centre in Ottobrunn was dispatched to lend a helping hand to their colleagues in the north.

One of them was Max Speckmaier, just 22 years old at the time. Despite his age, the young mechanic had learnt everything there was to know about the Ariane 5 thrust chamber during his training years with Airbus Defence and Space in Bavaria, and was quick to prove his skills while working on the upper stage in Bremen. He worked so productively that three months later he was asked whether he would like to form part of the Bremen team when it was sent out to Kourou to assist with an Ariane 5 launch campaign. Max didn’t hesitate to accept the offer, recognising that it would be an ideal opportunity to combine his professional work with a trip abroad. It was only when he arrived at his destination that he realised that he would have to spend the next few months adapting to an entirely new environment, demanding foreign language skills, dealing with cultural differences, and facing up to extreme climatic conditions. But this didn’t discourage him – quite the contrary! No more than two weeks after his arrival, he was certain that this wouldn’t be the first and last launch campaign on which he would participate in the equatorial tropics of Kourou. “Being asked to play a role at the heart of European spaceflight activities gave a great boost to my self-confidence and was an opportunity that I had no intention of refusing,” he says.

The cultural diversity of French Guiana, shrouded in its subtropical climate and luxurious rainforest vegetation, presents a stark contrast to the hermetically sealed world of ESA’s spaceport – a scenario that brings James Bond movies to mind and has always evoked fascinated curiosity in people all over the world. The ESA launch site is split up into a number of different areas in which numerous companies of almost every conceivable nationality help to prepare for the launch of Ariane rockets. Max lived in this world for two years. Here he worked under the strictest of security regimes as a member of teams that mostly consisted of older and more experienced colleagues, who were nevertheless more than willing to share their knowledge with the enthusiastic young mechanic. During the launcher integration phase, the team prepared the Bremen-built upper stage for launch under the direction of Airbus Defence and Space. This was followed by the final assembly phase, during which the payload was integrated in the rocket after it had been delivered to the customer Arianespace. Max was also involved in this phase of the work, which brought him into contact with the rocket’s ‘passengers’ – the satellites it was to carry into orbit – for the very first time. Payload integration is an extremely delicate stage of the operation, during which Max not only learnt how to handle highly sophisticated high-tech structures but also how to exercise patience. Whenever the slightest anomaly arose while working on the launch vehicle, it was not uncommon for everybody to have to interrupt their work for several hours.

When asked what aspect of his stay in Kourou tat had left the greatest impression on him, Max replies without hesitation: “The rocket. As soon as I stood in front of it for the very first time, I realised what I had been working towards for all these years. It was an unforgettable moment.” After the experience gained at Kourou, Max has no doubt that he wants to continue working for Airbus Defence and Space. It’s hardly surprising, given that he has now been on the spot for nine Ariane 5 launches. Nine times he has watched the sky light up as if illuminated by a fireball. Nine times he has held his breath during the ghostly moment of absolute silence that precedes the inevitable roar only a few seconds later. And nine times he has felt the vibrations invading not only his ears but also his whole body. And each time he has been proud to have been at least one small part of the successful campaign.

Max returned to Munich in October 2007, but he now has other projects on the horizon. In June 2008 he started work as a technician on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) deep space project – an infrared space observatory designed to investigate the origins of the stars and galaxies and the vestiges of the Big Bang. Max’s new job involves integrating highly sensitive scientific instruments such as the NIRSpec spectrometer developed in Ottobrunn, a task for which he is excellently qualified after his experience in Kourou. In the autumn, he intends to embark on a part-time degree course that will open up new prospects for his future career. After seven exciting, instructive years as a technician, it is now time for Max to advance to the next stage. In a few years’ time, he hopes to be able to play a more fundamental role in space exploration – and he doesn’t exclude the possibility of spending more time abroad.

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