'Black Beauty' sails to the tropics
13 September 1999ESA's X-ray space observatory has left Europe for its French Guiana launch site. XMM, nicknamed the 'Black Beauty' by the team and engineers who have built it, sailed from Rotterdam on Sunday 12 September aboard the Arianespace 'MN Toucan'.
The overall XMM shipment represented a major logistical operation. Following a first consignment of ground support equipment to be used to handle the spacecraft during the launch campaign in French Guiana, this second voyage included not only the spacecraft itself, but also a further eleven standard sea containers with more mechanical, electrical and test equipment, volumes of project documentation and office supplies.
XMM began its journey on the evening of Thursday 9 September. Leaving ESA's ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the 14 metre-long spacecraft container was taken by road 3 km to the canal port of Katwijk. From there on, given its 5 m height and 5 m width, the only way to meet up with the Toucan in Rotterdam was to take the canal waterways. The owners of the barge, the 'Emeli', were intrigued by this special contract and, understanding that they were carrying Europe's largest ever spacecraft, Gerrit and Marie der Haan proudly flew the ESA flag as they proceeded to the Rotterdam terminal.
Loading operations in Rotterdam took place under a starry sky and against the backdrop of twinkling lights of the oil refineries of the world's biggest port. It was a sultry night, with surprisingly high temperatures for Holland - as if to prepare XMM for its tropical launch site !
The spacecraft was of course well protected in its air-tight, cooled and nitrogen-ventilated container. The 13-strong Toucan crew and the dock workers proceeded with haste for a quick turnaround but with exceptional precautions, making room for this exceptional passenger.
Overseeing the XMM shipment was ESTEC Transport Manager, Herman Thoma. Over the years he has seen more than thirty spacecraft leave the Noordwijk complex "Most of them, size permitting, have left by plane for their launch sites", he recalled, "the last ESA spacecraft to be transported by sea was ISO in 1995.".
It was 03:00 am when the trailer was reversed down the ramp into the brightly lit hold. Members of the XMM project team watched carefully, acknowledging that it was an emotional moment. "We're off, this is it. After so many years conceiving and building the spacecraft it's a big step nearer launch ! " exclaimed project manager Robert Laini.
In addition to the Arianespace supervisor accompanying the spacecraft on the Toucan, two XMM engineers are also making the sea journey. Jan van Dooren, responsible for Product Assurance on the ESTEC team, has already crossed the Atlantic on passenger and cargo ships, notably when he emigrated in 1974 to work for three years in Brazil. But for his counterpart Armin Zumstein from prime contractor Dornier Satellitensysteme, it is an entirely new experience. Between them, they will each day be plugging their laptop into a digital recorder installed in the spacecraft container. This will record any shocks encountered, the conditions of temperature, humidity and pressure.
To occupy the rest of their time they have some XMM work and a stack of good books. Van Dooren counts on completing an article on XMM quality control and revising a 400-page manual on the art of repairing motorbikes! Zumstein will be sorting over 2000 technical photographs taken during the development and construction of the spacecraft and reading a most appropriate book - a tale of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas!
Although the spacecraft is particularly well suspended in its container, well capable of withstanding heavy seas and resulting shocks, the 'MN Toucan' will be taking no chances. Whilst his chief mate Hilhne Butat painstakingly supervised the fastening of the trailer and container to the deck, Toucan captain Guy Morice recalled that it is the cyclone season in the Atlantic and he is always obliged to reroute to avoid them. "But the forecasts for this trip are good and we count on unloading at Kourou's Pariacabo harbour on 24 September".
That same day, XMM should be driven the last few kilometres to reach the Ariane-5 Final Assembly Building of the European Spaceport. The satellite launch campaign will then commence its tight schedule to be ready for launch on 8 December.