Editorial | Saving the Best for Last

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ESA Ministerial, Orion Debut Close 2014 with a Flourish

The European Space Agency’s ministerial meeting and the maiden flight of NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule capped a topsy-turvy 2014 — a year marked by controversy and failures — on a positive note.

Both successes must be qualified, however — mostly in Orion’s case given the reality that the capsule won’t fly again until 2018. ESA’s Dec. 2 ministerial, meanwhile, though successful in resolving some difficult funding issues, raised new questions about the agency’s future role in the international space station.

On the positive side of the ledger, the ministerial produced agreements — and funding to match — to proceed with a next-generation Ariane 6 launcher, major upgrades to the Vega small launcher and the dual-launch ExoMars mission to Mars. It also produced a commitment from members, most notably cash-strapped Italy, to continue supporting the NASA-led space station at least through 2017 and in all likelihood through 2020. Notably, the deal fully funds ESA’s commitment, as part of its space station obligations, to provide the service and propulsion module for Orion’s next flight.

Ariane 62 configuration. Credit: ESA
Ariane 62 configuration. Credit: ESA

Germany, ESA’s biggest space station supporter, had demanded that Italy resume its traditional 19 percent share of Europe’s annual contribution to the program, which declined significantly in 2012 due the latter’s financial crisis. Italy agreed, despite having less funding available for space activities than had been expected in the weeks leading up to the conference.

But there’s a catch. Italy’s agreement assumes ESA will not participate in the space station beyond 2020. NASA in January said it would continue supporting station through 2024 and has asked its partners to make similar commitments.

As explained by Italian Space Agency President Roberto Battiston, Italy’s space station spending for the next three years will be less than 19 percent of the ESA total but then will rise relative to other members’ contributions so that after six years the threshold is met. The formula works, at least on paper, because Italy is assuming overall ESA funding for station declines starting around 2018 in advance of a pullout during or immediately after 2020.

This was not a statement of ESA policy, nor does it necessarily telegraph what’s to come. But it does underscore the point that ESA’s support for station beyond 2020 is far from assured.

The successful launch, flight and recovery of Orion, meanwhile, demonstrated the re-entry systems and heat shielding for a vehicle that could one day take astronauts to destinations beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo era. Despite a minor glitch with a mechanism designed to right the vehicle in case of an upside-down splashdown — two of the five balloons failed to inflate — the Lockheed Martin-built vehicle performed well, validating the work of its design and engineering teams.

The high-profile success provided a much-needed public relations and morale boost for NASA’s human spaceflight program, which since the space shuttle’s 2011 retirement has lacked an independent means of launching astronauts to space.

But Orion won’t fly again until 2018, when a more advanced version is slated to launch on the maiden flight of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System on an unmanned trip to lunar space and back. Orion’s first crewed mission, expected to fly a similar profile, isn’t scheduled to happen until 2021.

After that, things get murky. NASA currently has no credible plan or funding for a future Moon landing or other mission utilizing Orion, notwithstanding the White House’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, which has little support in the U.S. Congress.

That said, the nearly flawless execution of Orion’s mission, and the public’s response, were encouraging. Together they offer a promising prelude to the next milestone event in the human spaceflight program: the initial flight of a commercial crew capsule developed by Boeing or SpaceX, which if all goes well will happen in the next three or so years.

In that sense both the ESA ministerial and the Orion flight are best viewed as noteworthy steps in a never-ending march. For ESA, the next ministerial meeting, scheduled for 2016, already looms large, while for Orion, the horizon is a bit further out.