The European Space Agency (ESA) has big plans for the future, ones that could prove beneficial to NASA’s human space flight ambitions as well. ESA concluded a council meeting where some 10 billion Euros were set aside for ESA’s future space objectives. One of these endeavors was the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle or Orion MPCV.
The ministers attending the conference gave the thumbs up to providing the Service Module to Orion. This will essentially cover ESA’s contribution to the International Space Station (ISS) project for the period between 2017-2020. It will also allow ESA to begin participating with NASA’s future human space exploration efforts.
In an article appearing in the BBC, ESA’s Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain, confirmed that ESA would develop specific components for the Orion spacecraft’s Service Module. To date, ESA only will provide these elements once—for NASA’s planned 2017 launch of the spacecraft on its new Space Launch System (SLS). The mission will be unmanned. ESA will provide certain elements for the Service Module; these will be derived from their Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which is used to ferry supplies to the ISS.
The Service Module provides life support and other needs and is located directly behind the gumdrop-shaped Orion Command Module.
The Orion spacecraft is the vehicle that NASA hopes will allow the space agency to propel astronauts to destinations beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) for the first time in forty years. Possible targets for the spacecraft to travel to include the Moon (although NASA has stated that it has no plans to have crew touch down on the lunar surface any time soon), asteroids, and Mars.
A trip to the Red Planet would take a very long time, some six months just to reach this destination and then an extended stay of perhaps another six months to ensure that the maximum return on the investment was reached.
Moreover, to accomplish this feat it has been estimated that a spacecraft about the size of the ISS will be required. According to many experts on the subject, a mission to Mars will require extensive amounts of resources, so many in fact that the effort is probably beyond the capabilities of any one nation.
Given this, an endeavor similar to the International Space Station project might be the best bet to achieving the goal of landing astronauts on the surface of Mars.
The ISS project is a partnership between 16 different nations, each contributing to the ISS’s success. It is possible that ESA had all of this, as well as budgetary issues, in mind when it moved forward with plans to assist in Orion’s development.
NASA is currently working to conduct the first test flight of an Orion spacecraft in 2014. During this mission, dubbed Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), NASA will utilize a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket to propel the spacecraft to a point nearly 3,700 miles away from Earth.
The Orion used on this mission will remain attached to the Delta IV’s upper stage until it conducts reentry. During reentry, the energy generated by the 20,000 mph hour descent back to Earth will be the supreme test of the spacecraft’s heat shield and will provide NASA with the confidence it needs to move forward with development.
For its part ESA will have to produce equipment which is human-rated, a process the agency has not done before. ESA needed this to be approved when it was, as the work is needed to get started to meet the 2017 launch date. Even if everything goes off without a hitch, ESA’s continued involvement with Orion is not assured and might not extend past the 2017 test flight.