The U.S. space agency NASA has announced that it will coordinate efforts with its European counterpart, the European Space Agency (ESA), in an effort to build the Orion spacecraft.
In a statement released Wednesday, NASA administrators said the plan will involve Europe supplying the Orion service module, a key feature in the massive Orion rocket spacecraft that will propel astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.
“This latest chapter builds on NASA’s excellent relationship with ESA as a partner in the International Space Station, and helps us move forward in our plans to send humans farther into space than we’ve ever been before,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.
“This is a new page in the transatlantic co-operation,” said Thomas Reiter, the director of ESA human spaceflight and operations.
Under the NASA-ESA agreement, which was signed in December and announced on Wednesday, ESA will provide the design and the hardware for the Orion service module as part of its contribution to the International Space Station project. Any leftover material is slated to be used during follow up missions in 2018, according to NASA.
The announcement comes as NASA has sought the advice of its European counterpart, in part, due to the complexity of the spacecraft’s design. NASA engineers are working from scratch, building the massive rocket piece by piece. Speaking Wednesday, Orion’s project manager said the partnership with the ESA would provide NASA with additional resources and expertise.
“This is not a simple system. ESA’s contribution is going to be critical to the success of Orion’s 2017 mission,” said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager. Orion’s first trip is an unmanned mission in 2017.
Orion is designed to be launched by a NASA heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System, which is currently being developed. The spacecraft will first fly atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket in 2014. It is to reach an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface, farther than any spacecraft has gone in forty years, and it will reportedly be designed with the goal of ferrying humans to Mars sometime before 2040.
According to NASA, there are three major components to the Orion vehicle: the crew capsule, which will carry four astronauts into space on crewed flights and bring them home for a safe landing; the launch abort system, which would pull the crew module to safety in the unlikely event of a life-threatening problem during launch; and the service module, which will house Orion’s power, thermal and propulsion systems. Each system is being designed separately and it remains unclear whether NASA is on track to hit its 2017 mark.
The partnership is not the first for NASA. The U.S.-based space agency, which retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2010, has partnered with a number of foreign space programs. NASA and ESA already have a long history of cooperation on the International Space Station. The $100 billion orbiting laboratory is a joint project of 15 different countries represented by the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan.
Already, NASA has indicated that it plans to increase it presence outside of low-Earth orbit. The U.S. space agency says it is currently engineering ways to successfully launch astronauts to asteroids, return to the moon, and eventually send astronauts to Mars. A number of countries — including Russia, Japan, China, and India — have announced plans to launch humans or probes outside of low-Earth orbit.