Q&A | Airbus’ Oliver Juckenhöfel gung-ho on Deep Space Gateway
As the head of the Airbus space site in Bremen, Germany, Oliver Juckenhöfel leads a workforce of 1,000 people responsible for the bulk of the European aerospace giant’s human spaceflight and upper stage work.
Juckenhöfel’s team is busy finishing assembly of the Orion Service Module, the primary power and propulsion element of NASA’s deep space exploration capsule currently slated to perform its first lunar roundtrip — without crew onboard — sometime in 2019. As that work wraps up, Juckenhöfel and his team have already started work on its successor, which will return humans to lunar orbit.
Juckenhöfel, who joined Airbus in 2008 and took over the Bremen site last November, said he’s excited about the Deep Space Gateway, NASA’s concept for a permanent space station in lunar orbit. Airbus, as Juckenhöfel sees it, would be an indispensable contributor to the Deep Space Gateway, assuming it moves from concept to a bona fide program with European Space Agency involvement.
Juckenhöfel spoke with SpaceNews ahead of Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen Oct. 24-26.
Q. The Orion Service Module has passed its critical design review and delivery of the flight unit to NASA is expected next year. How is the work progressing?
A: We are in the production phase. We have the vehicle in a clean room and it already looks like a spacecraft. We are beyond the point where we are talking about bits and pieces.
Components are coming from our partners in Europe but also in the U.S. and we are completing the service module step by step.
We hope to hand the craft over to NASA as soon as possible. We need to have contingency for some qualification topics and investigation of recent test results.
NASA is expected to disclose the committed launch date to the U.S. Congress very soon. We don’t know it yet. But what we know is that by the summer 2018, our folks will be in Florida to continue with the integration of the overall vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center.
This is the first time we are building something that will fly beyond the moon and there are many challenges. The service module is 50 percent of the spacecraft. The crew module is being made by Lockheed Martin but if we don’t deliver our bit, there will be no spacecraft.
Q. In February, you signed a contract with ESA to build a second module — one that will be part of the mission that will take astronauts to the moon and back. Do you expect any redesign between the first and second mission?
A. We have already started manufacturing the second module and our industrial partners have been contracted to supply the components. We don’t plan any significant changes
For us, it’s a seamless transition. We are very happy that the agencies were ready to take this on already in the spring because that allows us to keep our whole industry supply base stable. Our suppliers move automatically from [Exploration Mission]-1 to EM-2.
The first module was already designed as if it was to support a human crew and NASA said in its assessment it would be confident to send people up in it already in the first mission. The service module provides propulsion, which we would need if we want to change the direction of the spacecraft but also for the return back to Earth. The service module also provides consumables for the astronauts, such as water, and electrical power via solar arrays.
There may be a few areas where we would need to make small changes but those will be local modifications; they will not affect the overall design. We already know about some areas that we could improve to further increase safety and reliability.
We expect to have a similar learning curve as we had with the [Automated Transfer Vehicle for ISS]. When you do something for the first time, you are bound to find issues that must be changed. We expect to make changes in the system that will be supplying astronauts with consumables. This is something that will not be fully tested in the first mission because there will be no consumers aboard.
Q. When do you expect to deliver the second Orion Service Module?
A. We are currently planning to deliver one of these service modules per year so when we have delivered the first one, about a year later we will deliver the second one. That is the cadence that we are preparing for. Then we have to see from the experimentation on system level when the Orion is fully integrated whether there will be any feedback. I would say we are probably taking some contingency with this one per year but even with that we are still forecasting the delivery of the second one no more than a year and a half after the first. This is really given by the integration time of the vehicle and the manufacturing time of components on the supplier side.
Q. Do you have any idea what will happen beyond the second mission?
A. We know already from the overall mission planning that is not yet fully approved, from the information that we are getting from the agencies, that already on the third flight we see what they call co-manifested payloads. These co-manifested payloads will be the first elements of the Deep Space Gateway.
Orion is like a shuttle; it’s shuttling between Earth and Moon and if you shuttle between Earth and Moon, you must fly somewhere. If the Orion is the taxi, the Deep Space Gateway will be the house or the shelter where you fly to do something.
That’s why the agencies already have a very detailed plan where they are talking about the build-up and the configuration of the Deep Space Gateway.
They want to use the launch capacity of NASA’s Space Launch System as early as possible to bring elements of the Deep Space Gateway up to the lunar environment.
If things go right, we might see already with the second flight, with the first crewed flight, some modules of the Deep Space Gateway being carried to the lunar orbit.
Q. Where else do you see the role of Airbus in the development of permanent human presence around the moon?
A. We hope we will be able to utilize the experience we have gained when developing and operating Europe’s Columbus module on the International Space Station. We believe that this could be another potential European contribution.
We also hope that our electric-propulsion technology could come handy. We have recently broken a record for the fastest orbit-raising of the heaviest all-electric geostationary satellite to date.
We have a lot of competence within the group, where we believe we can contribute and we are currently supporting ESA in discussions with other agencies about who could contribute what.
It’s not only NASA. JAXA, Roscosmos and the Canadian Space Agency want to contribute as well.
The agencies are approaching it in a very collaborative way, just as they approached the International Space Station.
For Airbus, the Deep Space Gateway and any orbital infrastructure is of very high interest because we believe that this is going to be the place where we are going to do our future business and future research. It’s a very vital part of our vision and our roadmaps and there is quite a lot where we think that Airbus can contribute. But of course we have to respect, as usual in this business, how much the institutions in Europe, how much the governments in Europe, will want to invest. We expect there will be some major decisions taking place at the next ESA ministerial conference in 2019.
Q. Last year, Airbus announced plans to attach Bartolomeo, an external platform for commercial experiments, to the station’s Columbus module. Do you see a lot of potential in commercial operations at ISS?
A. We expect to launch Bartolomeo in 2018. The interest that we have seen is quite amazing. We are in discussions with the newly founded Australian Space Agency, private companies, and small start-ups that want to test their technology at the ISS. The demand seems to be huge.
Customers can already book flight tickets with us and with the help of space agencies we will transport their payload to the ISS. We will also provide services to them in terms of access and monitoring what their technology or equipment is doing.
We see this as the first step to truly democratizing access to space. It will enable countries and companies that today don’t have access to the space station, because they are not member states, to have access on commercial basis.
Commercialization of the space station is an important point on our agenda. The agencies are driving towards deep space and we are seeing that they are leaving the low Earth orbit behind.
We believe that the space station will be gradually converted into something that is operated under more industrial responsibility, being it private investments or commercial business cases.
Just imagine this large infrastructure that is currently used for basic research if that could be used 50 percent for industrial purposes — either for manufacturing something there to use in or maybe building something there that can be used on the ground.
Airbus is well positioned to take part in this. We have seen a similar effect in aircraft building and telecommunication satellites. At some point the agencies leave control to the industry and then the industry has the flexibility to do something. We believe that there is going to be a huge room for new services to be developed.