Members of the Mars Express project and industrial teams travelled to the steppes of Kazakhstan last month to inspect the Baikonur cosmodrome where Mars Express will be launched on board a Soyuz-Fregat rocket in June 2003.

“We needed to familiarise ourselves with the facilities – and industry needed to assess the support and infrastructure so that they can prepare costs for the launch campaign,” says Rudi Schmidt, Mars Express project manager.

“The facilities look very good – but transport is the problem. If you forget something and have to bring it in from Europe, you have a logistical problem,” he adds. Flights to Moscow from Amsterdam (the nearest airport to ESTEC, ESA’s technical centre in the Netherlands) are frequent, but there are just two scheduled flights per week from Moscow to Baikonur.

When equipment or people need to be rushed in, often the only solution is to charter a plane, as happened on at least one occasion during the Cluster launch campaign. Delays at customs when entering Russia and at the Russian/Kazakh border, also add considerably to journey times. People can be delayed for hours and unaccompanied hardware for days.

“It was important for the AIV team and especially the people from Alenia to check whether the facilities matched their expectations. This meant checking out many details down to the positioning of communications lines and electrical plugs,” says Thorsten Siwitza, project controller for Mars Express. “If you only find out during the launch campaign that a connecting cable is 5 m too short, you could be in big trouble,” he adds. Alenia is performing the assembly, integration and verification (AIV) for the spacecraft and so will do most of the launch preparation work.

The launch campaign will begin in mid-March 2003, about three months before launch. Members of the project and industrial teams will perform six-week tours of duty at Baikonur, interspersed by 1-2 week’s leave. To judge from previous launch campaigns, the pace and intensity of work will be hard and team members will deserve what little relaxation they can get. So last month’s advance party also had the task of checking out local hotel, catering and entertainment facilities.

Baikonur is now a shadow of its former self during the Soviet era when the space industry boomed. Facilities or relaxation are modest but sufficient. “There are two discos, one safer than the other – and the hotel has a swimming pool, mountain bikes and mopeds,” says Schmidt. “We tested the local restaurants, which were good, and found the people very friendly, especially the small children who were keen to practice their school English on us.”

The advance party also visited the Soyuz manufacturing plant in Samara, an industrial town on the banks of the Volga. “The manufacturing facilities were very impressive. They were making launchers on the sort of production line you might expect to find in a car factory,” says Siwitza. The team will visit Samara and Baikonur in a year’s time for a final check before returning in March 2003 for the launch campaign.

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