NASA has announced a formal agreement with the European Space Agency to provide a service module for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that is scheduled to be launched on the Space Launch System in 2017.
ESA service module to be based on the ATV
The Automatic Transfer Vehicle (ATV) has been used by the ESA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. The ATV has a cargo carrier that can carry dry cargo, consisting of equipment and personal packages for the ISS astronauts, and fuel for the ISS station. It has a maximum capacity of 6.6 tonnes. The ATV service module is not pressurized and provides propulsion, avionics, and power for the overall cargo vehicle. Three ATVs have delivered cargo to the ISS with two more scheduled in 2013 and 2014.
The ATV based Orion Service Module
According to NASA, the ESA will provide an ATV-based service module for the Orion. As with the cargo carrier, the service module will provide propulsion, avionics, and power for the Orion crew module. It will also provide consumables such as water and air, the capacity for course changes, and thermal protection.
The agreement signed with NASA includes the ESA share of operating costs of the overall Orion spacecraft as well as additional support services for the ISS.
First mission to be in 2017
The first mission that the Orion using the ATV based service module will take place in 2017, according to NASA. A Space Launch System heavy lift rocket will boost an unmanned version of the Orion into a loop around the moon before having it return to Earth. The service module will detach from the Orion crew module before the latter re-enters the Earth's atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of California.
The UK Guardian notes that the first crewed flight of the Orion is scheduled to occur by 2021. The agreement with the ESA does not cover the 2021 flight, though it is likely that if the ATV-based service module performs well on the 2017 mission it will be used in subsequent flights as well. Currently NASA envisions the first crewed flight to be a lunar orbital mission, much like the flight of Apollo 8 in December 1968. But some are arguing for a more ambitious mission, to the Earth/Moon Lagrange Point 2, which is located beyond the lunar farside where the gravities of the Earth and moon cancel one another out. NASA has been contemplating building a small space station there to facilitate the exploration of both the moon and deep space destinations such as asteroids and Mars.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.