NASA-ESA Agreement on Orion Service Module is For Only One Unit Plus Spares

NASA-ESA Agreement on Orion Service Module is For Only One Unit Plus Spares

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) provided more details today of their agreement for ESA to provide the service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain announced the plan following ESA’s ministerial meeting in November.  Dordain extolled its significance both in terms of demonstrating ESA’s commitment to partner with NASA in human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit and in NASA allowing other countries to be in the “critical path” of the U.S. human spaceflight program.

At a press conference today, NASA and ESA officials continued to tout the importance of the agreement, although as details emerge it seems less dramatic than at first glance.  

The agreement is part of a barter arrangement between the two space agencies through which ESA compensates NASA for common systems operating costs on the International Space Station (ISS).  Except for Russia, there is no exchange of funds between NASA and its ISS partners.  Instead, the partners reimburse NASA for the costs of providing life support, electrical power and other basic needs on ISS through offsets, such as providing spacecraft to take cargo to the ISS.  In ESA’s case, it is launches of the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). 

Under this new agreement, ESA will compensate NASA for future common systems operating costs by using ATV hardware for the service module for one of NASA’s Orion spacecraft.  The service module provides electrical power, propulsion and storage for consumables. 

Orion, also called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), is being designed by NASA to take astronauts to destinations beyond low Earth orbit, such as asteroids, the Moon and Mars and their environs.   It will be launched on the Space Launch System (SLS) also under development by NASA.  

In 2014, Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin will launch a test version of Orion to the distance of the Moon to obtain data on its characteristics as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere.  That launch will be on a Delta IV.  The next flight of Orion will be in 2017 atop the SLS.  Orion will not have a crew aboard for either of those flights.  The first Orion flight with a crew, using SLS, is scheduled for 2021.

The agreement is for ESA to provide some of the service module systems for the 2017 flight.  It will also provide spare parts.  If the spare parts are not required, they will be used for the 2021 flight. That is the extent of the agreement at this point.   NASA will be provided with the intellectual property to enable U.S. companies to build whatever systems are needed for Orion service modules after that.

At today’s press conference, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said that the decision to put ESA in the critical path was not taken “lightly” and NASA and ESA carefully identified the interfaces between the U.S.- and European-built hardware.  He added, however, that as humans push further out into the solar system the missions certainly will be international “and this is the first step.”  He is “not 100 percent comfortable, but I’m never 100 percent comfortable, so that’s OK, and we’ve done it smartly.”  Later he added that if he was 100 percent comfortable, people should wonder why considering the challenges that lie ahead.  “We’re not foolish” and “I know it won’t be easy,” he stressed.

Gerstenmaier sidestepped a question about the destinations for the 2017 and 2021 flights in light of recent press reports that an outpost at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point or capturing an asteroid and bringing it to cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) are under consideration.  He said somewhat wryly that a number of missions are being studied by a variety of stakeholders and he is not taking a position on any of them and “then I won’t be disappointed.

Thomas Reiter, director of ESA Human Spaceflight and Operations, was asked if an ESA astronaut might be on the 2021 mission.   He replied that ESA is focused on the technical work ahead right now, but that future human space exploration would be international “and that kind of international crew would testify to that as it does today on the ISS.”  He also acknowledged that ESA committed to only 60 percent of the necessary funding at the November ministerial meeting, but he is confident the remaining 40 percent will be approved at the next ministerial meeting in 2014.

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