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Several people in red shirts and black trousers wander around the hallways – all occupied with some task, and in the middle of it all we have Erich Proell on his Segway: Steering with his knees, he has got his hands free to use a camera. The freshly painted rooms are filled with computers and laptops and screens showing data and diagrams. All the displayed information makes it difficult to decide where to look next! Cables and headsets are everywhere, lists filled with names, times and abbreviations fill the desks. People keep talking on the radios, and if one looks out of a window some strangely dressed person – golden helmet, silver suit, fitted with an antenna – walks past.
But we are not in the middle of a Science Fiction movie – we are witnessing the Dress Rehearsal for the Austrian Space Forums expedition to Rio Tinto in Spain.
From the 1st to the 3rd of April the forum did a last test for a simulated expedition to a rough world, where data and probes have to be collected for scientific experiments. Lessons learned in such simulated space missions could one day help those who set foot on the red planet for real.
This time the Aouda.X Suit lab in a building of the Austrian Red Cross is the stage of this test, but soon we will change locations into a desert. Main players of the expedition are Aouda.X (Spacesuit) and Phileas (Rover), directed by Gernot Groemer (who can be recognised by his outstanding hat). Not only for movies, also for expeditions like this one a script is needed, the so called “Flight plan”. Every minute of the day is thoroughly planned and the creative chaos is therefore turned into a productive format. Everybody has to know what to do and when to do it.
All participants of the simulation are acting according to their roles. A theatre play needs sound and light technicians, costume makers and people responsible for make up who help from backstage. The Austrian Space Forum’s Headquarters has its background crew as well: People responsible for accommodation, taking care of technical equipment, organising lunch and coffee machines, write documentation and type lists. These good souls keep the overview of everybody coming and going, making sure that everybody has the right name badge. They are creative artists, tour guides, cleaning personnel and driver – all at once.
During the test runs we loose communication twice, each time someone has accidentally pulled a plug – even with a strict “DO NOT TOUCH” from ground support IT. Luckily, Harald Fuchs has strong nerves, as the IT specialists have a tough job to do. They are responsible for every little detail necessary for the mission. They install all the software, build up hardware and even work throughout the night to teach the communication software who is the boss!
The boss of the mission control is the Flight Director, who leads the mission, together with his assistants. They also ensure that the main players and their field crew will have plenty of things to work on, by planning interesting missions and scientific experiments, along with some extra special effects.
Because not every single event can be predicted, which makes the test run even more important to practise several emergency situations. One of these tests simulates a leak in the drinking water system of the suit – a quick response is needed. The mission control centre gives yellow alarm, and start an emergency plan. The problem is not the danger of dying of thirst, but the combination of leaking water and the electronic components.
For any extreme emergency, there is also a security officer on site: With a radio, a pair of scissors and a fire extinguisher is ready to cut Aouda.X open like a roast chicken to save the “astronaut”. If there is no emergency, there is other work to be done for the safety officer. One of his duties is to make sure that no one stands to close to the wide angle camera, which is the all-seeing eye of mission control. In case of someone falling over, a “Biomedical Engineer” is ready for action: His responsibility is health and safety of all participants. When our suit tester complains over pain in his shoulder, he calls it a day: The safety of the person has priority over science.
To ensure that the rest of the world is aware of what’s going on in south Spain during the simulation, we have a dedicated public relations team. Many things needed planning on this weekend: press releases needed to be send out, press conferences had to be organised, a multimedia show and decoration of MCC needed planning, several photos, articles, interviews and videos for the website had to be prepared as well as several social media activities to keep the audience informed 24/7.
The first snapshots of participants fill the walls of the forums HQ on Sunday afternoon. Inside, we start to clean and tidy everything up, while Ulrich Luger – the suit tester – starts the complicated task of getting out of Aouda.X. Amused smiles can be seen among the helpers, as they dig him out of all the instruments, sensors and cables. However, not all instruments have collected the expected biological data.
In theatre, it is seen as a good omen if the dress rehearsal is filled with mishaps. Even though we are certainly not superstitious, we are optimistic that any blackouts and emergencies can be dealt with effectively once the mission starts for real in Rio Tinto…
Comment of the editorial office: Daniela Scheer will be with the field crew at Rio Tinto in Spain and will report daily her personal view of the simulation on the blog.
This article is available in: German
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