With Dr. Floberghagen in charge on the
ground, the satellite proved itself decisively—
and exceeded expectations. By the end of 2010,
GOCE had collected so much valuable data
that Dr. Floberghagen put in a request with the
project sponsor for an 18-month extension,
beyond the planned end date of mid-2011.
“I told the member states, ‘We know that the
longer we continue, the better the science will
be,’” he says.
He was granted the expanded scope and
schedule, to the end of 2012, at a cost to the Earth Explorers program budget
of between € 12 million and € 13 million.
Not quite two years into the mission, ESA scientists had used the gravity
data from the low-altitude satellite to produce the most precise map of the
geoid ever made, accurate to within 2 centimeters (0.8 inch). Still, the trip
didn’t end there.
“Once we met all of the objectives, we decided to make our lives more difficult,” Dr. Floberghagen says with a laugh.
In late 2011, he asked for and received another 18-month extension—and an
additional € 8. 5 million. This time, he proposed lowering the satellite even closer
to Earth, where the craft would have to fight stronger gravity, air resistance and
torque, but where it could record even more precise gravitational readings.
“Once a mission is well established, you understand the nature of the beast
and how it behaves and how it can be controlled. Then you feel quite confident in pushing that to the maximum,” Dr. Floberghagen says. “The time was
right to push further.”
Because the harsher environment in the lower atmosphere is trickier to fly in,
the expanded scope presented technological challenges. The biggest difficulty,
however, wasn’t about technology, but people: “getting the engineers and scientists to have the same goal,” Dr. Floberghagen says.
“Scientists will never be responsible for the fate of the mission; they want
to go as far as possible in terms of science return,” he says. “Engineers and
flight controllers want to make sure that if something goes wrong on the ship,
they are not the ones with the finger pointed at them and that they have done
everything possible to mitigate the risks.”
As the project manager, Dr. Floberghagen ensured that different team mem-
bers with different motivations all worked toward a common objective. “We
made sure that we had all the key scientists and advisers supporting our plan,”
he says, “and in the end it worked.”
After more than four years in flight, GOCE finally ran out of fuel and re-
entered Earth’s atmosphere in November 2013.
“We were doing things that had never been done before,” Mr. Muzi says.
Reflecting on the success of this singular project, Mr. Muzi again points to the
importance of people—maintaining the motivation of a large, multicultural
team over a long period of time.
He also attributes that success, in part, to being ever mindful of the potential
for failure: “I tried to give equal attention to successes and problems,” he says. PM
“We made sure
that we had all the
key scientists and
our plan. And in the
end it worked.”
The first global
based on GOCE
The GOCE satellite
undergoes testing at
the Russian Plesetsk