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Deal signed to provide European module for NASA's Orion spaceship

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Nov 22, 2014, 21:34 UTC

Sen—Europe’s role in supporting NASA’s mission to fly astronauts into deep space was cemented this week when the European Space Agency confirmed a deal to supply a major part of the spacecraft.

The Orion space capsule will be given its inaugural flight next month in an unmanned test. But when it eventually carries astronauts beyond the Moon to asteroids or Mars, it will be supported by a service module to provide vital functions.

NASA were clearly impressed by the sleek operation of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) which has carried out five flawless cargo flights to the International Space Station.

So rather than re-invent the wheel, they chose to commission ESA to supply a similar system for Orion. The module will service its crew with propulsion, electricity, thermal control and the major elements of the life support system.

This week, ESA signed a 390 million euro ($480 million) contract for Airbus Defence and Space, whose space branch was formerly called EADS Astrium, to be prime contractor for Orion’s service module.

This follows agreement with NASA in December 2012 for ESA to provide the important module. It is the first time that Europe has provided system-critcal elements for a US space project and is the latest example of how nations are choosing to cooperate in space.

The contract was signed in Berlin. The first flight of Orion with its European module is expected to be in an unmanned test, called Exploration Mission 1, in 2017 or 2018, followed by crewed flights early in the next decade.

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ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle-4 (ATV-4) Albert Einstein pictured as it was about to dock to the ISS on 15 June, 2013. Image credit: NASA

Orion itself is being developed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in the USA. System designs for the service module were approved by ESA in May this year, and a more detailed design is now underway for its approval in November 2015.

Airbus Defence and Space is one of the world’s leading space companies. François Auque, Head of Space Systems, said in a statement: “In the wake of the ATV’s outstanding five flawless missions to the ISS, this programme is yet another example of the important role that Europe plays globally in the field of human space flight.”

Rather than receive cash payment from NASA, ESA will supply the service module in lieu of contributions for its share of running the ISS. But a further benefit for ESA could be an invitation for a European to join one of Orion’s crews.

Although the 2017 maiden outing for the European hardware will be unmanned, the mission that follows will carry astronauts—probably on a trip around the Moon.

Thomas Reiter, ESA’s human spaceflight director, told the BBC: “It is of course my wish to have a European astronaut - a man or a woman - on board the Orion capsule sometime in the next decade.

“I don’t think it is too far-fetched to believe that with this path we have now opened, we will get flight opportunities.”