Guiding development of the first crewed spacecraft to leave Earth orbit since the final Apollo mission in 1972 was challenging enough before it required NASA Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer to herd cats on two continents and unravel a yarn ball of transoceanic bureaucracy to get the job done.

Orion had already weathered the cancellation of the Constellation program under which it was conceived when, in 2012, NASA brought the European Space Agency onto the project to provide thrust- and power-generating service modules for an uncrewed flight to lunar orbit then scheduled for 2017, and the first crewed flight in 2021.

In theory, this barter arrangement would satisfy Europe’s debt to NASA for use of the international space station while saving the agency some money. In practice, international cooperation is adding to the risk that Orion’s Exploration Mission-1 will slip beyond 2017. Geyer now says Orion may not make it to lunar orbit until sometime in 2018, at least a month later than NASA envisioned in 2011 when it settled on the basic design of the spacecraft and its carrier rocket, the heavy-lift Space Launch System.

While NASA is still clinging to the hope that the rocket could be ready in late 2017 — 2018 is likelier, the agency announced in August — Geyer says Orion is “struggling” to make the earlier date.

Doing the struggling on the ground is a workforce of about 3,000 people, counting both NASA civil servants and contractors from Orion prime Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, which is getting $12 billion to build three Orion capsules of increasingly complex design. The last of these, the only one on the contract slated to carry astronauts, is scheduled to blast off for lunar space atop the Space Launch System in 2021. The first, a skeleton by comparison, is slated to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in December aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket in an uncrewed Earth orbit test flight of its all-important heat shield.

Recently, with his team in the midst of preparations for the test flight, Geyer spoke with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

How close is Europe to setting the shipping date for the first Orion service module they owe NASA?

They’re finalizing their contract in September with Airbus Defence and Space, and they have challenges on the schedule that we are negotiating with them.

But when will they finalize the delivery date?

Exact delivery dates won’t be set until Orion’s Key Decision Point-C process is finished. Our plan is to have the final meeting in early January. That would be at the agency level with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. There’s a lot leading up to that, including my sign-off and [NASA human spaceflight chief] William Gerstenmaier’s sign-off in December, I think.

If the European module arrives late, what options do you have to limit the delays to Orion’s first lunar mission?

If they show up a little later than I planned, is there something they can do at the Cape? Can they travel some work to the Cape so they can get it to me earlier? That’s what we’re talking about now.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to use the Orion service module Lockheed Martin was working on?

Sure, it’s harder to work with someone in Germany than the guy next to you in the cube in Denver, but you have to look at the big picture: We’re going to explore the solar system with other countries. It is a fact. Given that, it is important that we learn how to do that together. This European service module is a great beginning. These guys are experienced. These guys have flown the Automated Transfer Vehicle to space station. Now this is a different job. They’re finding that flying to the Moon is much harder than flying to the space station.

Are you implying ESA’s service module, which is based on that Automated Transfer Vehicle, is heavier than you would like?

Going beyond low Earth orbit is a much bigger challenge for mass, but we solved ESA’s mass problem at their preliminary design review back in May.

How did you do that?

We pushed them pretty hard on some heritage stuff from the Automated Transfer Vehicle that was part of their mass assumption: pumps and solar panels and things. And I had some flexibility to give them on mass, so we allocated that margin and they closed their review. When we saw where they were and what they had done in the structure of the service module, we decided we didn’t want them to spend any more time and money on the mass issue.

What Orion issues have you dealt with on the U.S. side? 

There was the heat shield Textron [of Boston] made for us. This is the largest heat shield we’ve built in a long time. We had a good plan, but when it came out in the final cure we had some cracks in it. But we know how to repair them, like we did during Apollo, so we did. After that, we did another test to give us confidence in the stress levels and that took a little time.

And last year, you had the government shutdown to deal with.

Yeah, the furlough hit us for about one to two months of schedule there. We stopped some of the long-lead procurements because I didn’t know when Lockheed was going to get funded. And we weren’t allowed to fund the contract during the shutdown, so Lockheed pulled back on procurements.

Will your team start working on the next Orion spacecraft after the Orion test flight in December?

We’re doing some of that in parallel with the work for the test flight. We’re machining the barrel right now for the Orion that will launch with the European service module with the SLS. That’s our welding pathfinder, and it’s the last thing we need to do before we do the flight unit of the primary structure for the next Orion.

Before being put in charge of Orion in 2007, you were working on the international space station program. How does folding international partners into Orion compare with bringing Russia into the ISS?

This is much easier than bringing the Russians into space station, because we were already working with Europe when they joined Orion. What helped me a lot from space station was learning how the political process sometimes is going to drive our programs. It helped me to know that that’s kind of how it worked sometimes: When the presidents change, or there’s a big change in Congress, they’re gonna do what they want to do. And NASA is so visible, especially human spaceflight. They all seem to put their fingerprint on it, even if they’re not big space supporters. Things are going to change. Stressing about that can be a lot of wasted energy.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.