Orion service module
Technicians perform final work on the service module for the Orion EM-1 mission at an Airbus factory in Bremen, Germany. Credit: ESA/A. Conigli

BREMEN, Germany — The first European-built service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft is finally ready to be shipped to the United States for final preparations before a scheduled mid-2020 launch.

At a press conference during the 69th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 3, representatives of NASA, the European Space Agency and companies involved in the program said the first European Service Module, the “powerhouse” of the Orion spacecraft, should be shipped from a nearby Airbus factory late this month.

“We’re planning to ship on the 29th of October,” said Nico Dettmann, head of ESA’s Exploration Development Group. Some final testing of the service module could delay that shipment by up to a week, he said, “but we’re very confident that we’ll ship on the 29th.”

The service module will be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center, where it will be mated to the Orion crew module already there and undergo more testing in preparation for launch on the Space Launch System. That crew module is effectively complete, said Mike Hawes, vice president and Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin, other than some work replacing avionics boxes. “The U.S. team is ready,” he said.

Development of the service module suffered extensive delays because of technical problems that at one point required Lockheed to provide some technicians to Airbus, the prime contractor for the module, to help speed things along.

“The first one always carries the character of being the first of its kind,” said Oliver Juckenhöfel, vice president of on-orbit services and exploration at Airbus. He said the company is incorporating lessons learned from the first service module for future modules, as well as design improvements and other changes to reduce its mass.

Some of those changes will need to reflect the fact that, unlike the uncrewed Exploration Mission (EM) 1 flight that the first service module was built for, future Orion missions will be crewed. “For the EM-1 mission, we had certain cases which allowed us to waive requirements because there was no crew on board,” Dettmann said. “There was a strict obligation to fix it for EM-2.”

The service module has been one of the items pacing the overall development of EM-1, along with the core stage of the SLS. “Right now we’re about neck-and-neck” with the SLS core stage in terms of what element is on the critical path to launch, said Mark Kirasich, NASA Orion program manager.

Delivery of the service module in the coming weeks, though, would keep the mission on track for a 2020 launch. “If we get the service module by November, we’re working to target a June 2020 launch date for EM-1,” said Kirasich.

Airbus has already started construction of the second and even the third service modules, Juckenhöfel said. Development of the later service modules involves a complex set of deals for ESA, including contracts with Airbus and agreements with NASA, as well as support from ESA’s member states.

David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, said the ESA Council gave approval in June to start procurement on the third service module. “We’re in the process of a commercial procurement at the moment with Airbus, waiting for a proposal to come in,” he said. “Long-lead items are already under contract, so that’s off and running.”

The fourth service module will be included in the package of proposals ESA’s member states will consider at the next ministerial meeting in late 2019. In the long term, Parker said ESA is considering a block buy of several more service modules beyond the fourth. By that point in the module’s development, he noted, the design should be stable, making such a deal feasible.

At the same time, Parker said ESA has “ongoing discussions” with NASA on a deal to provide those service modules. The first two service modules were provided by ESA in exchange for ISS logistics services. That future agreement, he said, could be part of a broader exploration package that will also include European contributions to the lunar Gateway.

Such an agreement could include provisions for ESA astronauts to fly on future Orion missions. “The aspiration is obviously there to get a European astronaut” on a mission, he said

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...