NASA, ESA Sign Agreement for Orion Service Module

NASA and the European Space Agency or "ESA" have announced plans to develop a version of the Orion spacecraft that will incorporate components provided by ESA. Image Credit: NASA

NASA and the European Space Agency or “ESA” have announced plans to develop a version of the Orion spacecraft that will incorporate components provided by ESA. Image Credit: NASA

In a major development for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Program, NASA yesterday announced the signing of contracts with the European Space Agency to build the Service Module for Exploration Mission (EM)-1, scheduled to ride the debut voyage of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift booster in December 2017.

Orion is the first new spacecraft designed to transport humans beyond Earth orbit in almost half a century, and this agreement follows months of speculation that ESA is keen to capture a key role for itself in the development process.

“We have a lot to look forward to in the coming years with human exploration,” said Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “NASA is thrilled to have ESA as a partner as we set out to explore our Solar System.”

According to yesterday’s announcement, the contracts were formally signed in the middle of December and will encompass the mapping-out of a plan for ESA to fulfil its “share of operational costs and additional services for the International Space Station by providing the Orion Service Module and necessary elements of its design for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1.”

Before EM-1 can take place, NASA must first complete Exploration Flight Test 1 or "EFT-1." This unmanned mission is slated to take place in 2014 and is being flown to test out Orion's heat shield. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

Before EM-1 can take place, NASA must first complete Exploration Flight Test 1 or “EFT-1.” This unmanned mission is slated to take place in 2014 and is being flown to test out Orion’s heat shield. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

The Service Module, built from an alloy of aluminum-lithium, will serve as Orion’s primary electrical power and propulsion system and will be jettisoned at the end of each mission. It will support electricity-generating solar panels, radiators, reaction control thrusters, and oxygen and nitrogen tanks for life-support utilities, carbon dioxide “scrubbers,” wastewater recycling systems, and the spacecraft’s 7,500-pound-thrust main engine. Present specifications depict the Service Module as a cylinder, 16.5 feet wide and 15.7 feet long, with an empty mass of 8,000 pounds and a propellant capacity of 18,000 pounds.

“This is not a simple system,” stressed Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion Program Manager. “ESA’s contribution is going to be critical to the success of Orion’s 2017 mission.”

Tentatively scheduled for December 2017, the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) - consisting of four Shuttle-era Main Engines, a pair of five-segment Solid Rocket Boosters and a Delta-derived interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (iCPS) - will deliver the first human-capable craft to the vicinity of the Moon in almost five decades. Image Credit: NASA

Tentatively scheduled for December 2017, the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) – consisting of four Shuttle-era Main Engines, a pair of five-segment Solid Rocket Boosters and a Delta-derived interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (iCPS) – will deliver the first human-capable craft to the vicinity of the Moon in almost five decades. Image Credit: NASA

Although Orion is scheduled to undertake its maiden “shakedown” mission, Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1, sometime late in 2014, atop United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, this particular flight will be focused upon the performance of the Crew Module and will be equipped with a “test” Service Module, fabricated by Lockheed Martin. For EFT-1, the spacecraft will be boosted to a maximum apogee of some 3,600 miles—higher than any human-capable vehicle in more than 40 years and a close parallel to Apollo’s planned, but unrealized, “E” Mission—and will demonstrate the capability to endure a lunar-velocity re-entry in the range of 25,000 miles per hour.

Yesterday’s announcement that ESA will build the Service Modules of subsequent flights comes as no surprise to most observers, since the pan-European organization has for at least two years expressed its interest in using its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) technology as part of the Orion spacecraft. This ATV heritage is obvious in ESA’s evolving schematics for the Service Module. The original circular solar arrays for Orion appear to have been replaced in the design by an ‘X-wing’ configuration, not dissimilar to the ATV’s own array layout. As long ago as October 2011, the website NASASpaceflight.com cited sources which described ESA as “serious” about building the Service Module, and in November of last year it was reported that the agency was prepared to provide the key component as “payment-in-kind” for its continued involvement with the International Space Station through the end of this decade.

Currently scheduled for launch on 17 December 2017, EM-1 will be an unmanned seven-day flight of the Orion Crew Module and Service Module and is expected to circumnavigate the Moon, before returning to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. It will be boosted aloft by the 70-metric-ton “Block I” variant of the SLS, with a “stretched” core stage of four RS-25D engines donated by the Space Shuttle Program, a pair of five-segment Solid Rocket Boosters, and an interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (iCPS). The latter—derived from the cryogenic upper stage presently used by the Delta IV rocket—is powered by a Pratt & Whitney RL-10 engine and will provide the translunar injection “burn” to depart low-Earth orbit and set the Orion spacecraft en-route to the Moon.

The Block I configuration of the SLS is expected to support only two missions; after EM-1, it will also loft the EM-2 spacecraft on humanity’s first piloted flight to the Moon in almost five decades. That mission, which will carry a crew of four on a six-to-ten-day circumlunar voyage, is officially targeted for late 2021, but NASA hopes to move that date closer, perhaps by as much as two full years, to late 2019.

12 comments to NASA, ESA Sign Agreement for Orion Service Module

  • Jim Hillhouse

    This move by the ESA sets the stage for it to explore beyond low-earth orbit.

    • Neil Shipley

      No it doesn’t. They’re only building one. Imagine NASA trying to build the follow on ones to ESA plans and specifications. It’ll be a nightmare and don’t mention what it’ll cost.
      Besides which there’s no funding or plans for any mission hardware.
      Just face it, unfortunately SLS (forced on NASA by Congress) and probably Orion, are unlikely to ever fly and certainly will never be the regular exploratory vehicles that NASA needs due to cost.

  • Let’s go!!! Let’s do this!!! Let’s recapture the excitement and imagination of our younger generation as was done in the 50’s and 60’s. We are on the cusp of exciting discoveries in space exploration and an on-going human presence in space will focus young minds on the wonder of it all.

    • Neil Shipley

      Hold on to your hat. It isn’t going to happen this decade and if NASA continues to utilise the same old methods, then not next decade either. Program costs are eating NASA alive. For example, JWST and MPCV. That’s why Cx was cancelled. No money except for keeping the standing army employed doing makeup work.

  • Leonidas

    They say there are two personality types: those that see the glasss half-empty and those that see it half-full. So, I guess there are two ways of seeing at this. Either you can cry and complain that NASA is doing the exact same thing it did 50-something years ago so what’s the big deal, or you can see it as a new step towards a new start onto a great new chapter on human spaceflight, greater than before.

    What will be the case, depends ultimately on us. Will the US learn from the mistakes and pitfalls of past space policy and decisions and will it have the will and decide to continue the funding until completion of SLS/Orion construction and beyond into something great and meaningful? *Sigh*, decisions, decisions… But I guess that’s what history is all about…

  • Leonidas – well-stated!

  • Neil,
    Interesting that you claim SLS was “forced” on NASA by Congress, but neglect that NASA’s new commercial bent was forced on NASA by Obama’s reps Bolden & Garver. Hmmm…
    As to them only building one? Not so much. NASA has been asked not only reduce the cost but to also partner with international groups. It would seem that this is part of that initiative. Curious that you’re neglecting to state all the relevant facts…
    Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

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