A day in the life of a spacecraft controller

In the first of a series of articles featuring some of the Inmarsat people who are helping to deliver our world-leading connectivity services around the globe throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we speak to spacecraft controller James Wydra, based in our Satellite Control Centre in London.

What is your role at Inmarsat?

I’m a spacecraft controller, currently training to become a spacecraft analyst. I joined Inmarsat on 15 May 2017, the same day our GX4 satellite launched! I work in the Satellite Control Centre (SCC) at our City Road HQ. We control all our spacecraft to make sure they remain healthy and stationary in their position in space so that they can carry customer traffic.

What attracted you to a job in the space industry?

I suppose it all started when I watched the film Apollo 13. I relished the idea of operating an immensely complicated and fragile spacecraft and handling a mission all the way to the end, especially when you have an anomaly and there’s a composed scramble to identify what’s gone wrong, what the solution is and how to implement it. That drove me to take a BEng degree in Aerospace Engineering, followed by an MSc (Masters) in Spacecraft Engineering. Even with those qualifications it took about two years from graduation to being accepted for my current role as the space sector is highly competitive, especially operations.

What is a typical day’s work?

A dayshift starts at 7:30am when the previous night controller briefs me on the latest situation with our spacecraft fleet and the ground stations we use to control them. I then perform my own checks to ensure that any alarms are accounted for, the schedule for today matches what we’ve got and there are no communication issues for telemetry and commanding. This is repeated for our backup control system located remotely. Inmarsat is unique in that we’re able to have a single controller work on their own in nominal conditions due to the high level of automation we use, often just checking that scripts kick off at the right time to perform manoeuvres and operate the spacecraft. Where we really earn our keep is where automation cannot help, responding to alarms, triaging issues as they come up and escalating where needed, especially for an anomaly that’s impacting our customer traffic.

As a business-critical worker still coming into the office, has your work changed during the lockdown?

No big changes – it’s like a very long weekend shift with the office empty. No more face-to-face conversations but phone calls instead. We watched the situation in Italy closely when the outbreak took hold there so terribly because an issue at our Fucino ground station could require the on-call engineer to travel to the site, which would not be ideal in the circumstances. I just hope that all the measures I take here make sure that I don’t get infected and make my colleagues or flatmates sick.

Never before has a connected world been so important. How does it feel to know that what you do every day is helping people to stay in touch and stay safe during these isolating times?

The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and our other safety services are an important obligation in the unprecedented times we live in. Inmarsat is always relied on when there’s a crisis and land-based networks are strained. What’s new is the global nature of this pandemic and its effect here in London.

Satellite Control Centre, Inmarsat HQ, London

Can you give an example of a particularly proud moment in your job?

My first anomaly! I was a fresh-faced controller barely out of training working at 2am in the SCC alone. Suddenly I heard a loud beeping noise and my display was flooded with a raft of angry red alarms and warnings.  It took a few seconds to scan over the messages, deciphering the telemetry abbreviations and acronyms, then after a quick glance through the glass door to make sure the NOC wasn’t affected I knew what do to – I picked up the phone and asked the on-call spacecraft analyst for help! My studies did assist but it’s never all up to me, even after midnight! Thanks to my training I was able to manage this crisis and clearly explain over the phone to my colleague what had happened, which was nothing drastic. The analyst agreed with my assessment and walked me through the recovery procedure while they typed up a summary to management. It’s a bit like scuba diving, about 95% of your training is learning what to do when things go wrong, so you know how to react and keep safe.

In addition, of course I always break out the popcorn whenever we have a launch and I’m watching the livestream.

James Wydra