Europe Races To Finish Orion Service Module Construction Before Deadline

First Posted: May 23, 2016 04:00 AM EDT

The back end of the Orion spacecraft which is scheduled to make a significant demonstration flight around the Moon in 2018 has reportedly started to be assembled by the European industry. NASA's Orion is the next generation spacecraft that will be used to send astronauts to destinations farther than they have ever gone in space, such as asteroids and Mars.

The service module for space vehicle, provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), is being built by Germany's Airbus. The module will provide temperature control, power, propulsion, and means to carry air and water. The Orion is an enormous unit of hardware which is shaped like a cylinder, and measures four meters wide. The spacecraft will weigh 13 tons in flight configuration.

"What you see at the moment is just the primary structure, but over the coming months the empty space within it will be packed," said Philippe Deloo from ESA. "What needs to go in is the propulsion system, the power system, the thermal system, and the consumables storage - the items that deliver water and gas to the [Orion capsule]. All have to be integrated and verified to complete the vehicle."

Incidentally, this is one of the first instances when NASA has looked overseas for a key element needed for their astronaut transportation system. The main parts of Apollo, Gemini and Mercury were all built in the US. According to Jim Free, deputy associate administrator from NASA, Europe's role in completing the service module for Orion is a critical one at the moment, because the spacecraft won't be ready to take off without it. Airbus is hopeful of delivering the completed module by 2017, however the company has acknowledged that the timeframe is challenging.

The pressure faced by Airbus can be viewed by the fact that even before the module has had its Critical Design Review (CDR) the final assemble is already proceeding. The CDR usually happens at the stage when all the final drawings are signed off, indicating that no more changes can be introduced. However, leader of the Airbus's service module project, Bart Reijnen, is comfortable with the present state of affairs. According to him, it is a viable way or Airbus wouldn't have done it, but he adds that the current schedule doesn't allow for any contingencies.  

At the moment, Europe is officially committed to making just the one module, however the member states of ESA will be asked in December to put the funds behind a second one. An industrial part in the service module will likely have to be found for the United Kingdom if the European participation becomes regular.

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