BREMEN, Germany – NASA and European Space Agency officials on May 19 said the European Service Module (ESM) for NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle was within budget and on schedule for a late-2018 inaugural flight pending a key review.

But the ESM program remains pressed for time – so much so that flight-model hardware integration is beginning before the program’s critical design review, scheduled for June 16 at ESA’s Estec facility in Noordwijk, Netherlands.

Fully loaded and fueled, the ESM will weigh about 13,000 kilograms at launch and provide Orion’s propulsion, power supply, thermal control and crew life-support elements.

It is the first time that NASA has allowed Europe to occupy such a crucial place in an astronaut-related program and signals the mutual respect between agencies that may be one of the enduring contributions of the international space station.

“Without the work on ISS, we would not be here today,” said Jim Free, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “This position [of Europe] on the critical path has never been done before. Frankly, we do not fly [Orion] without the service module.”

NASA, ESA and the principal Orion and ESM contractors – Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space on the European side, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, NASA’s Orion prime contractor – met May 19 to signal the start of ESM final assembly at Airbus’s facility here.

Assuming a green light at the critical design review and no other roadblocks, Airbus is scheduled to ship the ESM to Lockheed Martin in January. The ESM and the Orion capsule then would face a series of tests at NASA’s Plum Brook, Ohio, test facility before returning to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to be mated with NASA’s Space Launch System before launch.

The inaugural flight, without a crew, is scheduled for November 2018. ESA and NASA have opened negotiations on continuing their barter arrangement for a second Orion flight, in 2021, this time with a crew, as well as for future Orion missions.

ESA and Airbus officials said they needed to conclude negotiations on the cost of a second ESM before European ministers meet in early December, so that a contract award could begin immediately thereafter.

ESA’s share of the international space station’s common operating costs is 8.3 percent of the non-Russian portion of the orbital outpost. The two agencies have agreed to value ESA’s cost at about 150 million euros ($170 million) per year. ESA has already paid up until mid-2017 by providing five cargo runs to the station of the Automated Transfer Vehicle, which has been retired.

The first ESM will meet Europe’s station obligations through 2020. Pending further ESA-NASA negotiations, a second ESM could complete ESA’s common operation dues to 2024, the tentative retirement date of the space station.

In an illustration of how complicated space station funding is in Europe, ESA governments in December 2014 agreed to finance the full ESM contract by Airbus and its subcontractors without financing any other portion of Europe’s space station program beyond 2017.

The December ministerial conference will be asked to extend the space station commitment to 2024.

Addressing a press briefing here, Free said NASA has accepted the principle of continuing barter agreements with ESA even though the Orion program is not part of the space station. Orion is intended as NASA’s crew transport vehicle beyond low Earth orbit as the agency plots a long-term route to Mars – with possible program side detours along the way.

Philippe Deloo, ESA’s ESM program manager, said the agency’s 390-million-euro contract with Airbus signed in 2014 has not be exceeded despite the glitches that have made it necessary to begin hardware integration before the critical design review.

ESA in 2014 estimated that its entire ESM program was valued at 470 million euros, equivalent to three years of common space station operations adjusted for inflation.

Deloo said Phase-B studies for a second ESM have already been contracted with Airbus and its contracting team, and that a third ESM is also being discussed with NASA. He said the two agencies have agreed that future contracts would be done on the same basis as the first, with a full ESM plus spare parts for another.

The second ESM will be almost identical to the first, meaning all the nonrecurring engineering charges will have been borne by the first model. That would imply a substantial reduction in the cost of a second, meaning ESA would need to come up with another barter item acceptable to NASA to meet Europe’s annual space station obligations to 2024.

Deloo said the fact that the ESM flight model had been delivered to Bremen for assembly “is the sign that we are confident that our design is good and we can proceed. It is a bit peculiar that we start integrating while the CDR is not yet done.”

Bart Reijnen, head of Airbus’s on-orbit services and exploration division, said 25,000 parts and components will be crammed into the ESM. “That’s one of the challenges, there is barely a square centimeter of spare space,” he said. The cabling alone is several kilometers in total length.

Thales Alenia Space-Italy provides the ESM thermal control and gas storage and distribution. The solar arrays are from Airbus’s Dutch subsidiary.

Deloo said one of the complications of the program relates to the complex interfaces between the ESM and the Lockheed Martin Space Systems-built Orion capsule. One example: the Orion capsule’s on-oard computers will drive the ESM’s avionics suite.

Michael Hawes, Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin, said early tests results on an ESM structural model, delivered late in 2015 to NASA’s Plum Brook facility, have shown good results. He said Lockheed Martin will be adding avionics and electronics to the Orion capsule this autumn, in parallel to similar Airbus work on the ESM to be done here.

Lockheed Martin has staff stationed here, and soon will have staff at Airbus’s Les Mureaux, France, facility, where the ESM avionics are designed. Airbus has staff at Lockheed Orion facilities in the United States, Hawes said.

Hawes said he would be back in Europe for the critical design review on June 16. “It’s a great start but the team has a lot to do,” he said.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.