An interview with Pia Mitschdoerfer, ExoMars Mission & Software Systems Engineer
ExoMars Mission & Software Systems Engineer
(2006 - present)
Watching the first Moon landing as a child with her father and brother and visiting NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston at age 13 made an everlasting impression on Pia Mitschdoerfer, influencing her education and choice of profession. These early experiences led Pia to pursue engineering during her studies and she obtained a degree in computer science from Technische Universität Berlin in 1989. Still fascinated by anything related to human spaceflight, she launched her professional career from the International Space Station (ISS) programme at MBB ERNO (now Astrium) in Bremen, Germany. As a software engineer Pia's work dealt with the European laboratory ‘Columbus’, the onboard data management system for the Russian segment of the station and ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, covering ground and flight software as well as system testing.
Pia then worked on fault-tolerant systems and safety critical software for two and a half years at Daimler-Benz Research in Stuttgart/Esslingen and in Berlin for Mercedes-Benz and for German Aerospace Industry. This involved using formal methods to specify and design mechanisms that ensure a system continues to operate or behave safely even when some part of it fails.
Continuing her interest in human spaceflight, Pia joined ESA’s Directorate of Manned Spaceflight and Microgravity in 1998 as a systems engineer in the ISS programme, initially working on the Columbus project and later supporting the whole ISS programme department. In this role, she also coordinated and managed some of the activities for the Studies, Technology and Evolution Preparation programme, which aimed to improve the existing services on the European segment of the ISS, reduce its operational costs, and plan the future developments of the facilities. Among other activities, Pia was responsible for the development of an experiment, performed by Pedro Duque as part of his ‘Cervantes’ mission in 2003, exploring a new concept that provided more flexibility of movement to crew members while working on the space station.
Since 2006, Pia has been working as ESA’s Mission and Software Systems Engineer for the ExoMars programme.
Pia, can you tell us something more about your role and responsibilities in ExoMars? What does your job entail?
In cooperation with my ESA colleagues, I am working with the ExoMars industrial team to establish the software architecture and external interfaces. In this role, I am responsible for ensuring that the software requirements and design meet the programmatic constraints and scientific objectives of the project. I also have to make sure that the software will be properly tested and I will assist with its integration and verification during the later stages of the manufacturing process.
Another important area of my job is the coordination of the technical interfaces with the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, regarding the ground segment and flight operations implementation.
What challenges do you face on ExoMars?
The ExoMars mission is quite different from the ISS missions – there are no humans onboard, so safety requirements are less rigorous than for human spaceflight. However, a mission to Mars needs to be highly autonomous, because contact with Earth is delayed by the transit time of the radio signals and does not occur as frequently as is the case during low- or near-Earth missions. Every step that is taken onboard is pre-planned on the ground and executed autonomously. This needs to be taken into account in the mission operations concept and in the design of the spacecraft hardware and software. If something goes wrong or not as expected, then the spacecraft must remain in a controlled and controllable state. Ensuring this within a very tight development schedule is a challenge.
Additional constraints apply to the ExoMars EDM vehicle, which has to land safely on Mars while there is no means of interaction between the vehicle and the ground operations team during the critical six minutes between entry into the planet’s atmosphere and touchdown on its surface.
A successful mission can only be achieved by a large team working together – developers from industry and research institutes, scientists, operations experts from ESOC, technical experts from ESTEC, engineers from cooperating partners like JPL, and the ESA project team. Supporting this cooperation with my contributions, to achieve the mission objectives, is my daily challenge.
What have you enjoyed most about your career so far?
I started my career in industry, working on the International Space Station, and then left the space world for a while; a few years later, I came back to the ISS in ESA to work again on Columbus. By the time of the Columbus launch, I was already working on ExoMars, but I was lucky enough to be able to attend the launch in Florida. The most important thing for me was the fact that the Columbus team came together again to see the launch; many of my colleagues from industry and ESA enjoyed a fantastic journey to KSC. Although Columbus could not be launched at this first attempt due to a technical problem with the shuttle, two months later when it finally did lift off, I was back in Florida to watch the launch and although some colleagues were unable to join us again I felt that they were somehow there with me. It’s the teamwork that I most enjoy, and this is also true on ExoMars.
What inspires you about Mars?
To be honest, it’s not so much Mars itself that inspires me; I am excited by the engineering challenge of getting there and conducting exploration and scientific research, tens of millions of kilometres from Earth. When I saw the first images acquired by the NASA rover ‘Sojourner’ in 1997, I was excited by the passion and enthusiasm of the team that built and operated Sojourner. Their achievement was fantastic, to get there and have the rover driving around on the surface of a distant planet.
Why did you choose to work on the ExoMars programme?
I wanted to find out how an interplanetary science mission works and understand everything that an engineer is interested in: getting to Mars, landing safely and driving around with a rover, discovering the planet. It has a ‘wow’ factor.
What is it like working with an international team?
It is enlightening. It broadens your view. It takes you further. It makes you achieve more than you thought could be achieved. It is like this because, at first, you don’t understand; sometimes you misunderstand, and then you might disagree. You have to argue in support of your point of view, and in the end you do something together and you develop a special bond with one another.
What is the big question about Mars you would like to see answered?
I am interested in the answer to the question that all scientists want to see resolved, concerning the existence of life on Mars, in the past or perhaps even now.
What is your vision or hope for the future of the programme?
My vision for the programme is its implementation within the context of a fruitful international cooperation, similar to the one we have seen for the International Space Station. I hope that any budget issues will be resolved, enabling the development of the mission at full speed.