Wednesday April 29th 2009. Launch -15 days and Counting.
We are about to enter the last two weeks before launch. It has been a stop-start journey but now, very little should stop us for long. Bad weather in Kourou would certainly stop the launch, although the most likely thing is that any delay would be brief. Similarly, a problem with the rocket on the launch pad could stop us for a few minutes, or just possibly a day. There is a final review of readiness for launch two days before after which the rocket is rolled-out on the launch pad: once that happens though launch is just about certain to occur in a maximum of 72 hours. Each day now our launch window gets longer and will be up to an hour by the middle of May. This means that we can even wait on the launch pad for a problem to be fixed or a band of low cloud to pass and still expect to get off at the first attempt. Our Brains Trust thinks that this time it is for real. The closer that we get to launch the smaller the uncertainty: we are not talking about potential delays of months, or weeks any longer, instead it is just the odd day.
We now have our working schedule for the next 6 months, with its weekends and limited flexibility. No longer can we take an odd day off; everything has to fit in to an overall plan of availability of personnel every single day.
Today we had our one and only planning meeting for next week’s final system test. As part of the meeting we went through everything that had happened last week. Essentially the major problems are fixed. Most of the minor problems are fixed and the ones that are not we can live with. The old hands who have worked in previous missions – and let’s face it, I am one of the few “newbies” without previous experience of a mission on the team – say that we are better prepared than any previous science mission and have everything in a far better condition for operations after launch. Other old hands have cautioned that each mission is different – in our case our helium starts to boil away as soon as the fairing is closed for roll-out for launch – and so we cannot afford to waste any time in space. The overall impression though is that we are doing pretty well.