ESA-NASA Orion Service Module Deal is for Only Two Units

ESA-NASA Orion Service Module Deal is for Only Two Units

CLARIFICATION, JANUARY 16, 2013:   At a NASA-ESA press conference today, the details of the agreement were explained.  ESA is providing certain hardware for only one service module — for the first (uncrewed) flight of Orion in 2017 — plus spare parts.   If the spare parts are not needed, they will be used for the second Orion flight (with a crew) in 2021.

ORIGINAL STORY, NOVEMBER 20, 2012.  As announced last week, the European Space Agency will provide the service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft to offset its share of operating costs for the International Space Station (ISS) in 2017-2020.   The agreement is only for two service module units, however, not an ongoing arrangement.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) on Wednesday that ESA would build the service modules for Orion’s uncrewed test flight in 2017 and the first crewed mission in 2021.   NASA will get the intellectual property and build future service modules, he said, adding that no deal has been signed yet.  It must be approved through State Department channels, Gerstenmaier said, a process he hopes will be completed in December.

The arrangement was confirmed by Johann-Dietrich Woerner, Chairman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center, at a Space Transportation Association meeting this morning.  Woerner stressed, however, that the current arrangement is limited to two because it is meant to offset ISS operating costs and does not mean future agreements might not involve additional units.  ESA might also find other uses for the module apart from the Orion program, he indicated.

ESA is using the design of its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) to build the service module. ATV is a spacecraft that takes cargo to the ISS.  Three have been launched already and two more are planned.  Woerner was enthusiastic about the close cooperation that will be needed between European and American companies to integrate the service module with the rest of the Orion system.  EADS Astrium is ATV’s prime contractor, while Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion.

At a press conference last week, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain spoke excitedly about the prospect of ESA being allowed “in the critical path” of the next space transportation system that will take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.  His sentiment was echoed by Woerner this morning.  

Historically, NASA has shied away from letting other countries into the critical path where NASA would be dependent on them to build systems without which a NASA mission could not succeed.   Although NASA and ESA have decades worth of cooperation — including on the space shuttle and the International Space Station — those projects could have proceeded if ESA withdrew for any reason.  The projects would have suffered, however.    ESA’s Spacelab modules that flew in the cargo bay of the space shuttle provided a shirt-sleeve environment for a broad array of research activities.  Its Columbus module and Cupola for the ISS are significant enhancements, but, strictly speaking, the ISS could exist without them. 

This is not the first time NASA has allowed a foreign country to be in the critical path of a major mission, however.   Russia’s participation in the ISS has been critical since it joined the partnership.   Russian-built modules formed the core of the ISS in the early days of construction.  Today, NASA is completely dependent on Russia for crew access to the ISS and for lifeboat services.  It is also difficult to imagine space shuttle or ISS crews achieving all that they have without Canada’s robotic arms, Canadarm and Canadarm2.

In any case, ESA clearly is ecstatic at reaching the agreement to build at least two Orion service modules.  Whether or not there will be more is an open question.

For the moment, however, ESA is in the critical path for the 2017 and 2021 Orion missions.  At the NAC meeting, Gerstenmaier said “Do they know how much I’m counting on them?  Yes, they do.”

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