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A Shared Passion for Rockets

Noriko Shiraishi H-IIB Launch Vehicle Launch ConductorOn July 21, 2012, Japan launched the H-IIB Launch Vehicle No. 3, carrying the H-II Transfer Vehicle KOUNOTORI 3. We interviewed the launch conductor, Ms. Noriko Shiraishi, who has overseen launch operations for all three H-IIB rockets.
  • Overseeing the Entire Launch Operation
  • Quick Decision-Making
  • Trusting the Team
  • Taking Pride in One’s Work
  • Loving a Sense of Urgency and Unity
  • Hardship Is Cleared Away by Accomplishment
  • Our Special Children: H-IIB Launch Vehicles
  • I’ve Let My Desire to Fly Guide Me
  • Passion for Building a New World of Rockets

Overseeing the Entire Launch Operation

Q. First of all, could you tell us what a launch conductor does?

Noriko Shiraishi (center) working in the launch control room
Noriko Shiraishi (center) working in the launch control room

The launch conductor takes charge of launch operations, which start four days prior to launch. The operations take place after the final inspection of the assembled rocket, and include the transfer of the rocket to the launch pad, the loading of the propellant, and the launch itself. There are a lot of people involved in these operations. The launch conductor’s job is to oversee the entire process, and ensure that each step goes smoothly from start to finish. The conductor presses the start button for the automatic countdown, which begins 270 seconds prior to the launch, and is responsible for pressing the emergency stop button if something unusual is detected before the launch. Q. How is it possible to oversee so many different operations happening at the same time? Working with three assistants in shifts, the launch conductor oversees all the operations from the launch control room, which is 12 meters underground, about 500 meters away from the launch complex. We get reports on the many concurrent operations via the Operational Intercommunication System, which has approximately ten channels - one for each section, such as rocket, facilities, and launch pad. We listen to all ten channels at the same time, and watch video feeds from different parts of the launch complex. That’s how we monitor the status of all the operations and adjust their progress.

Quick Decision-Making

Q. Could you give us more detail on the launch conductor’s role?

Dry run in the launch control room
Dry run in the launch control room

Launch operations are divided into stages from Y-3 to Y-0. Y-3 is the work that is performed four days prior to the launch, and Y-0 is the two-day process that takes place the day before and the day of the launch.

The day before Y-3, we do a dry run - we go through all the launch-day operations. In this drill, we are thrown a whole list of different problems, such as defects in the rocket body or communication problems, and we have to deal with them.

When we’re launching KOUNOTORI, the cargo transporter to the International Space Station, we can’t change the launch time, because its flight needs to be timed to rendezvous with the ISS. So if there is a problem leading up to this type of launch, we have to make quick decisions: whether the problem will have an impact on launch, and whether it can be solved in the time we have left.

Now let me tell you about the launch operations in detail. Four days before launch, at Y-3, the main task is to close up the propulsion and power systems, and conduct final confirmation for launch. The just-assembled rocket is surrounded by scaffolding and attached to cables. The process of removing all of these to get the rocket ready for launch is called the closeout.

Y-2, three days before launch, involves dangerous work, such as connecting lines for pyrotechnics (pyrotechnics connection), and loading the gas-jet attitude-control system with hydrazine. Pyrotechnics connection is to install electric connectors that send detonation signals to pyrotechnics fuses. While this is happening, all other operations are prohibited, and only specialized staff are allowed to perform the installation, wearing protective clothing. For such dangerous tasks, access to the rocket is restricted, so the work can only be done after the rocket’s final confirmation. So deciding when to start these dangerous operations is very important. The final decision is made by the launch director, but it’s the launch conductor’s job to report on the status of the rocket and to help make the call.

At Y-1, two days prior to launch, the main task is to get the rocket ready for transfer to the launch pad. The operation starts with the inspection of the RF system, and continues with the final confirmation of the electrical systems, the closeout of the propulsion system and the arming of the rocket. At the same time, the launch pad is prepared to receive the rocket. Q. And next is Y-0. Finally, launch day. The Y-0 operations start about a day prior to the launch, with the closing of the payload access door on the fairing. Then, the rocket is transferred to the launch complex, and starting approximately nine and a half hours prior to launch, no one is allowed within a 3-kilometer radius of the launch pad. Until that point, my assistants take the lead and I watch. But at this point, I take command. This is where I really get psyched. Preparation for launch, such as loading the propellant and testing the electrical systems, is complete, and at last it’s time to launch the rocket.

The day of the launch of the H-IIB Launch Vehicle No. 3, we were having bad weather, with thunder over the north of Tanegashima Island, where the launch pad is located, and rain clouds moving from the west towards us. We were concerned about whether we would be able to launch the rocket on time. But we went ahead with the preparation, strongly hoping that we would be able to launch the rocket, which is filled with everyone’s thoughts and affection. And, fortunately, our wish came true; the weather over the launch pad held. It was a great relief that we were able to launch the rocket safely as scheduled.

Trusting the Team

Q. Is there anything in particular you keep in mind on such a tense launch day?

H-IIB launch vehicle being transferred to the launch pad
H-IIB launch vehicle being transferred to the launch pad

What I keep in mind is to trust and rely on the people working on the launch. On launch day, there is so much to do, because multiple problems can occur all at once, and data needs to be checked in order to find solutions, for example. In such situations, when we feel togetherness in working toward the same goal, all the sections voluntarily collaborate to help each other and think about ways to solve any problems efficiently. I think that such a sense of unity is important, so I keep it in mind to create an atmosphere where everyone can come together.

I try to pay attention to small things, and also make an effort to get to know as many people as possible, so that I can communicate better with them. Visiting them at their stations, I start by asking how things are going, and sometimes I can catch up on their back stories (laugh). I find it is important to build a good relationship with people on a daily basis, so it becomes easier for everyone to offer information when a problem occurs. In addition, listening to a voice through the OIS (Operational Intercommunication System), I get a totally different impression when I know the speaker’s face.

Another thing I remind myself to do is to pay attention to the atmosphere of the launch control room, where there are almost 150 people working. For example, when something unusual is detected, there is a buzz in the air. So you can catch something from the atmosphere in the room before information is delivered through the OIS. In that sense, I would say that I use intuition for work. Q. Once the rocket is successfully launched, does your job slow down? Yes it does. But after launch I have to evaluate the flight data, so I don’t have time to relax. I am also a member of the H-IIB project team, so I can’t take it easy even after the rocket has taken off. While I enjoy the success of rocket launch, there is another important job waiting for me - to look for any problems in the course of the rocket’s flight, and to do any further investigation or analysis in order to improve the next launch.

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