Behind the Scenes: Managing Missions During a Global Pandemic

Today we announced that our team is currently in New Zealand prepping for three consecutive launches for our customer BlackSky with Rocket Lab. We’re calling these launches the “Triple Double” — 3 Electron launches with 2 BlackSky satellites onboard each, launching back-to-back-to-back. That would be a demanding schedule under normal circumstances, but with a global pandemic it takes on a whole new meaning. 

Our teams are continuing to provide exceptional services throughout the pandemic to enable our customers to focus on their spacecraft readiness and ensure schedule reliability. What most don’t see behind the scenes is that our teams coordinate international travel with daily fluctuations due to country-specific restrictions, navigate last-minute supply chain delays, re-manifest customers on new launches due to delays on their original launch, manage weeks of isolation in international quarantines in government regulated facilities, and handling integration and logistics for customers who can’t travel to integration facilities. 

For our upcoming Rocket Lab / BlackSky missions, our team was required to spend 15 days in “MIQ” (Managed Isolation and Quarantine) prior to the first launch campaign. When you factor the in-country quarantines plus the three launches (which require a six-week launch campaign overlaid on top of them), the teams are away from their families for two full months. That’s a big ask, and we couldn’t be more proud of our team for signing up for the task at hand. For one Mission Manager’s view of what this looks like, check out this post

It’s “outdoor time” in MIQ in New Zealand for our upcoming BlackSky / Rocket Lab launches. The teams are getting their steps in as they wait to be cleared to get to the launch site.

We have so many examples of how our team has stepped up and done ‘whatever it takes’ to get their customers’ spacecraft prepared, to the launch site, and integrated on the launch vehicle safely.

Here are a couple examples: 

  • A Spaceflight mission manager headed to India months before the scheduled launch of PSLV-C49 on the last flight option from the U.S. into India before the border locked down. She needed to ensure the team and facility was prepared for launch before potential travel restrictions were expected to occur. Staying as long as she could to make the necessary progress, she flew out on the last flight out of India before international flights out of the country were halted. She returned months later for the launch campaign in the heat of the pandemic. After a week of MIQ at a government facility and frequent COVID-19 tests, she and the team completed payload integration at the launch facility and the PSLV mission lifted off as scheduled.
  • When a customer with a spacecraft onboard Vega-1, Arianespace’s VV16 mission, could not return to the launch integration facility in French Guiana to perform battery charging because of new travel restrictions imposed in their home country, a Spaceflight mission manager stepped up. After enduring two weeks of MIQ, she completed the last-minute charging on behalf of the customer and the launch progressed as planned. 
  • The Mission Management team has also done standalone operations and integrations for European customers on SXRS-3 (SpaceX Transporter-1) and SXRS-5 (SpaceX Transporter-2) who weren’t able to enter the U.S. for the integration campaigns in Washington and Florida. Considering that even if they had been able to get an exemption to be allowed entry to the U.S., having our team do the work saved them from having to quarantine two weeks upon their return trips.
  • When it came time for our team and customer to travel to French Guiana to support the Vega-1 launch campaign, there were no commercial flights available between the U.S. and French Guiana. The team secured a charter flight from Miami to get our Mission Manager, customers, and their spacecraft to the Arianespace launch facility in time. 
With no commercial flights available between the U.S. and French Guiana, a charter flight was arranged from Miami to get the Spaceflight team, our customers, and satellites to French Guiana for the Vega-1 launch.
The view to freedom past the locked gate at the quarantine hotel in French Guiana, unlocked after 14 days!
PSLV-AZ1: This little guy at SHAR (during the PSLV-AZ1 launch campaign in India) expertly describes how we all feel stuck in quarantine.

While the mission support team estimates they have spent 130 days in quarantine supporting seven international launches since the lock downs started, they’ve also reported conducting at least five Zoom calls a day during the quarantines. 

Maybe even more impressive than connecting on Zoom, the team also happily reports three engagements, two marriages, and one baby is on the way. Thanks quarantine! 😉

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