Interview with a space engineer

Space engineer Vicki Lonnon talks to Rachel Dorris about her experiences working on the LISA Pathfinder (LPF) satellite.

  • Credit: Vicki Lonnon

The Royal Institution Masterclass team runs UK-wide programmes for secondary school students, including a growing network of Engineering Masterclasses. These sessions are delivered by our hard-working team of volunteer engineers.

Spacecraft engineer Vicki Lonnon is one such volunteer. Vicki has been working as a quality engineer on the LISA Pathfinder (LPF) satellite for the last two and a half years and last September she left the UK to follow LPF as a member of the launch team. Engineering Masterclass coordinator Rachel Dorris caught up with her as final preparations are made ahead of its launch on December 2 from Kourou, French Guiana.

Hi Vicki, tell us a bit about yourself and LISA Pathfinder.

I’m the Quality Assurance engineer for the spacecraft. This means I’m responsible for overseeing all aspects of the assembly, integration and test of the spacecraft hardware. It’s a really interesting job – I get a balance between hands on activities where I am in the clean room taking part in spacecraft activities and the paperwork side of the job. I follow every activity that takes place on the spacecraft, so, I pretty much get to be involved in everything. Great for a nosy parker like me!

How many engineers does it take to get a satellite into space?

Our team on site at the Kourou Space Centre consists of around 20 people. However, in order to design, build and test a spacecraft, plus employees of other organisations involved in the project, not to mention the rocket and of course the customer, I would hazard a guess that close to 1000 people have worked directly to make LPF happen, with another 2000 having in some way contributed. So it really does take a lot of people working together to make it possible to put something into space.

  • Credit: ©2015 ESA-CNES-Arianespace / Optique Vidéo du CSG - P. Baudon

More than it takes to change a light bulb then!* What did you do during this project that you never dreamed you would have the opportunity to do?

When I started out at Astrium (now Airbus Defence and Space) a little under 10 years ago, I could never have dreamed that one day I would be stood at the top of a rocket launch tower watching a spacecraft I worked on being lifted up and onto the top of the rocket. Equally, I never imagined I would get to travel on board an Antonov-124, one of the world’s largest aircraft – that was very cool! I also never imagined that I would one day take a hike through the Amazon rainforest – a perk of the launch site being located in Kourou.

Sounds like an exotic part of the world! What is French Guiana like? 

We are at the very start of rainy season and there is a downpour at least once every day. It’s 35oC most days and usually around the 90%+ humidity mark. We have seen our fair share of creatures: tarantulas, monkeys, geckos and of course lots of mosquitoes! One of my favourite things to do here is to visit the covered market in downtown Kourou, which is full of all sorts of fruit, veg and spices and local speciality dishes.

So other than sampling the local cuisine, what has been the most fun/unexpected part?

With the exception of things directly related to LPF, being here for the launch of Ariane 5 at the beginning of November was really something. We were lucky enough to be able to see the Ariane 5 on the launch pad just 24 hours prior to watching it launch from a purpose built viewing platform in the jungle. Seeing and hearing the rocket launch was something quite unforgettable. It went from being dark to being bathed in the equivalent of midday sunshine within seconds and then half a minute later the roar of the engines could be heard and a short time after I felt the ground vibrate.

A jungle space launch – that sounds like a once in a lifetime opportunity! Has it all been golden, or have you experienced the odd irritation along the way?

Being a long way from home for 8 weeks and not seeing my husband throughout this time is difficult. However we manage to speak quite often, although the wifi/internet over here is not brilliant which is really frustrating when you want to catch up with your emails or write a blog! Getting totally soaked through on the morning that we landed in Cayenne with the Spacecraft and all the equipment was another not so highlight!

  • Credit: Vicki Lonnon

I bet LPF is designed to cope better in a vacuum than in the rain! Here comes the launch date – now what is left to do?

In the run up to the launch, our team are in a supporting role. We’ve handed over our baby to the launcher authority who are now in charge of getting her safely atop the rocket and off into space. I am able to witness a lot of the critical operations which means heading up to the launch tower (where I have spent a lot of time this week). Our electrical test team are performing the final spacecraft checks now that the spacecraft inside the fairing has been integrated onto the rest of the rocket. Once the integration of the fairing is confirmed to be successful, there will be the launch count down rehearsal and then the so called “final chronology” begins on launch day. 

After all the time and hard effort it’s taken to get to this point, do you feel like a nervous parent? If so, how will you cope with empty nest syndrome when LPF flies the nest, or will it be good riddance and onto the next project?

It’s difficult to get my head around the fact that the launch is imminent. When the spacecraft was encapsulated into the rocket fairing the other day it was officially the very last time we would see her. That what we have worked towards for so long is nearing its final stages is more exciting than anything. There will also be a bit of relief when I see it lift off and head into space at long last.

Will you have any continued involvement in LPF when she is in space?

My involvement in the project really ends at launch. Should there be any need to review any of our records in the future, due to in flight anomalies perhaps, then I may be asked to assist with the retrieval of certain records, but that is all. I am going to continue to follow the progress of the mission though, and keep my blog going with updates.

Sounds like you’ll have time on your hands come December. What will you do after this?

As it is so warm here, it seems odd that when I get back in a few weeks Christmas events will be in full swing. My plans are to enjoy Christmas and catch up with friends and family who I’ve barely seen throughout 2015. In January, my husband and I have a holiday booked, we can’t wait!

  • Credit: Vicki Lonnon

Wow, what a year! Follow Vicki’s own blog of her experiences, and join us in keeping all of our collective fingers crossed for a smooth launch on the morning of December 2 (04:15 GMT). We look forward to hearing more news from LPF when she starts generating research data from space. Visit the LISA Pathfinder mission website for more information.

Our thanks go to Vicki for taking the time to answer all our questions. We’re already looking forward to welcoming her back to the UK and back into the Ri Masterclasses fold soon. Have a great Christmas and well-deserved holiday, Vicki!

* The answer to this is the same response that engineers give to all technical questions: it depends!

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