The development of a key component in transatlantic spaceflight co-operation took a leap forward on the eve of ILA 2014, with European Space Agency approval of the design for the service module it will supply for NASA’s Orion crew capsule.
Orion – formally the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle – is being readied to take astronauts to deep space from the early 2020s. The Lockheed Martin-primed spacecraft will rely on the module for propulsion, power supply and life support for missions to the Moon and asteroids, or even Mars from around 2035 if current NASA planning holds.
Airbus Defence & Space, formerly Astrium, is adapting its Automated Transfer Vehicle robotic supply ship for the project. As with ATV, which has been the biggest spacecraft flying following retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, provision of the Orion service module makes up a large chunk of ESA’s contribution to the international barter arrangements that make up International Space Station running costs. The fifth and final ATV mission to the ISS will launch via Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s French Guiana spaceport in July, carrying some 6.5t of supplies and fuel.
Orion and its service module are scheduled for an unmanned maiden flight in 2017 to one of the so-called Lagrange points, where the Earth’s and Moon’s gravity balance each other, allowing a spacecraft to hold station easily. A second, manned flight could follow in 2021 or 2022.
The ATV-Orion project marks ESA’s first significant foray into hardware for manned missions. When NASA and ESA agreed the deal in December 2012, the latter's human spaceflight director Thomas Reiter heralded "the start of extended co-operation".
But much depends on the readiness of Orion’s rocket, NASA’s massive Space Launch System (SLS). With its initial version intended to lift 70t to low-Earth orbit and later versions to heft 130t, the rocket will be the most powerful ever built. NASA says it expects core stage testing to begin in late 2016.
However, SLS has long been a focal point of political controversy in Washington, DC. SLS was conceived after the Obama administration cancelled the George W Bush-era “Constellation” return-to-the-Moon programme, and has been called a “rocket to nowhere”. Critics have taken aim at its cost – possibly $500 million per launch – and its reliance on derivatives of Space Shuttle motors, an architecture which locks out competitive rival designs. SpaceX, whose relatively low-cost Falcon 9 rockets have already shaken up the launch market, has stated its intention of developing a Mars-capable rocket, but any prospective NASA backing would likely be consumed by the SLS programme.