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ESA on Tight Schedule To Deliver Propulsion Module for Orion

The first Orion Crew module structure is inspected at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: NASA photo

PARIS — The recent agreement by the European Space Agency (ESA) to furnish the propulsion module for NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to pay ESA’s share of the station’s common operating costs will force European contractors to accept an unusually tight delivery schedule, ESA officials said Dec. 14.

They also said the arrangement leaves several elements yet to be decided relative to intellectual property rights to hardware used for the propulsion module.

The 11 ESA nations participating in ESA’s space station program — Britain recently agreed to take part with a symbolically important investment of 20 million euros ($26 million) — on Nov. 21 agreed to build the propulsion module for NASA’s MPCV in time for a first flight in 2017.

The decision came after a long debate over whether being a junior partner to NASA in Orion was the best way to reimburse the U.S. agency for Europe’s space station dues.

ESA owes NASA about 150 million euros per year for Europe’s share of the station’s general operating budget. Its debt through 2017 is being paid in flights to the station of the large Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo carrier. The fifth and last of these space tugs is scheduled for launch in 2014. When it completes its mission, Europe will have paid its station dues through 2017.

ESA had said one of the advantages of joining the Orion program is that ESA could develop a visible piece of hardware without spending much more than the 455 million euros it will owe NASA for the three years.

Under the agreement between the two agencies, ESA will deliver an Orion MPCV propulsion module to NASA in time to prepare for the vehicle’s flight in 2017 atop the Space Launch System, a space shuttle-derived heavy-lift rocket now in development. Orion’s 2014 inaugural flight atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket will not have a propulsion module as it is intended mainly to test vehicle elements including atmospheric re-entry.

Bernardo Patti, ESA’s space station manager, said the development of the module will include flight-ready spare hardware that can be used for a second flight in 2019 or 2020. NASA, he said, will own this hardware and will need to decide whether to use the proven European team for the second flight — a decision that would carry additional costs — or to transfer MPCV propulsion module integration to a U.S. contracting team.

Whatever the decision, ESA will have acquitted itself of its obligations to NASA until 2020 with the full propulsion module for the 2017 flight, plus the flight spares.

After the second flight, NASA will need to make a longer-term decision about whether to transfer propulsion module production to the U.S. or leave it in Europe as part of a future agreement with ESA.

Patti said ESA has made clear it would prefer to continue its role in the MPCV beyond the first flight or two in the context of a trans-Atlantic exploration partnership.

Depending on the path taken, NASA may need to license some of the European-developed hardware used in the propulsion module, said Philippe Deloo, ESA’s MPCV study manager.

The module includes three types of engines. One is U.S. property derived from the space shuttle’s orbital maneuvering system. The second engine is built by Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., which will sell its engines to the ESA team for inclusion in MPCV. The third engine is developed by Snecma of France. Ongoing use of this engine by MPCV would require NASA to license the engine’s design for production in the United States, or to purchase engines from Snecma.

Patti said that for propulsion module elements provided by Europe that are not subject to patent or whose patents are old, NASA and ESA will be able to negotiate a mutually acceptable means of providing them to NASA.

ESA’s MPCV work is part of a wider space station exploitation budget totaling 1.07 billion euros and covering 2013 and 2014. The total represents nearly 82 percent of what ESA asked of its governments. The 205 million euros not committed this year have already been promised, but will not be released until the second half of 2014, which Patti agreed does not leave much time to complete the work and deliver flight-ready hardware to NASA for a 2017 flight.

A second ESA station budget, for science experiments to be operated on the space station, did not fare as well. ESA asked for 388 million euros between 2013 and 2016, and received only 54 percent of that sum.

Patti said program cuts will need to be made in numerous places to accommodate the lack of sufficient funding. He declined to be specific, but said some functions now distributed over several facilities could be consolidated to save money. Some station-preparation efforts, such as drop towers and parabolic flights to test experiments, will need to be reduced.

For Europe’s space station managers, the biggest disappointment — albeit one that had been known in advance — as they watched ESA governments collect funds at the agency’s conference of ministers Nov. 20-21 was the drop in support from the Italian government.

Italy had been, since the program began, a major space station partner. But Italy’s ongoing government budget crisis forced it to cut in half its participation in the station’s exploitation budget, to 9.25 percent. For the scientific experimentation budget, Italy agreed to invest only 20.2 million euros — 5 percent of what ESA had requested.

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