Mission control is among the most instantly recognisable and relatable examples of a critical control room. Technicians and controllers sitting at rows of screens, communicating through telephone handsets or microphone headsets, is an image familiar from TV coverage of rocket launches and moon landings. While the basic layout has not altered much, the technology and changing operational requirements are leading agencies to reconsider the layout of these areas.

Thierry Bru, Operation Control Centre Service Manager at the European Space Agency (ESA), featured twice during the ISE 2020 Control Rooms Summit (CRS): first on the panel session The Use of AV in Critical Control Rooms and then in his own presentation, The Journey of ESA’s Main Control Room. During this Bru outlined the main activities of the ESA, which cover all aspects of space exploration, supported by scientific and technological research and development.

The ESA’s mission and operational control facilities are located at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. Craft are launched from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, while a network of antennas is located in Spain, Australia and Argentina, Portugal, Sweden and Belgium. The agency operates two types of control room: the MCR (Main Control Room), used for launches and early orbit phases and critical operations, is run by the system and flight control team; and the DCR (Dedicated Control Room), which is driven by function and operations and focuses on routine operations.

The MCR has grown in size since the 1960s, with more screens and operator positions, although the display technology remained CRT-based until recently. The displays are now flatscreens but Bru envisioned a time when the virtual technology of films such as The Hunger Games and Minority Report would be a viable reality. In designing control rooms for the future, Bru said the ESA was considering functional, operational and ergonomic requirements, as well as new technology. This last category, he added, could involve virtual reality and holography, with the design phase aided by demonstrator and visualisation packages such as CADwalk.

“The future for control rooms could follow the evolution of technology and be like the control centre in The Hunger Games,” Bru commented. “We launch spacecraft and oversee the count process and the way that’s done hasn’t changed in 20 years because the control rooms have been built up around the teams running them. The staff wants to keep that, but we are looking at more consoles and LED. And why not 3D as well? But ultimately we don’t want to disrupt how it all works now.”

Control Rooms Summit took place on 11 February 2020 at the Hotel Okura Amsterdam. Please find the image gallery here. See you next year at Integrated Systems Europe 2021!