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Schedule for full-up Orion test flight to be reassessed

Posted: January 15, 2014

Overweight and struggling with design delays, the European-built service module for the Orion crew exploration vehicle may not be ready for a much-anticipated test flight by the end of 2017.

Artist's concept of the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle with the European-built service module. Photo credit: ESA
The preliminary design review for the Orion spacecraft's critical engine and power element is now on track for May after a six-month delay to contend with weight issues, according to Thomas Reiter, director of the European Space Agency's human spaceflight and operations programs.

"We need to work on some mass issues, which is normal in a development," Reiter said in an interview Friday. "We need to look into some aspects of the propulsion system [and] secondary structure. Those are the main areas where we needed some consolidation."

Reiter said ESA and its European contractor, Airbus Defence and Space formerly known as Astrium, decided in the autumn to push back the preliminary design review in consultation with NASA and its Orion contractor Lockheed Martin Corp.

ESA announced the delay of the review in November, saying "it was the aim not to affect the critical path of the project and to minimize the effect on the overall schedule."

Reiter said he and Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA's human spaceflight directorate, agreed to assess the schedule only after the satisfactory conclusion of the preliminary design review.

"I think it is too early to speculate about launch dates," Reiter said. "Bill and I agreed that we wait for the PDR and then look at the schedule to launch. I cannot say different than the end of 2017 because that would be premature.

According to Reiter, a veteran ESA astronaut who flew on Russia's Mir space station and the International Space Station, managers opted to delay the service module's preliminary design review because the element's design documentation was not mature enough to proceed into the major developmental milestone.

"It was the only decision we could take," Reiter said. "Otherwise, we would have run the risk to fail the PDR and that would have caused an even longer delay."

Reiter said he was encouraged by progress made on design documentation in the last month, adding there is a "very solid way forward" for the design review to stay on schedule for May.

Despite the delay of the PDR, Reiter said ESA will authorize Airbus Defence and Space to start procurement of "long-lead items which are more or less independent of the outcome of the PDR."

"We are trying to be as flexible and creative as possible," Reiter said.

ESA's human spaceflight chief Thomas Reiter. Photo credit: ESA/J. Mai
ESA is ordering service module work to Airbus in portions and is waiting to award the next big contract, known as the Phase C/D contract, after the preliminary design review.

The PDR delay "cuts down the time we have to prepare our C/D contract with industry, but it's achievable," Reiter said.

The first flight of a full-up Orion capsule is still officially scheduled for launch in late 2017. The unmanned mission will blast off on NASA's Space Launch System, a heavy-lifting rocket being developed to facilitate missions beyond Earth orbit. The 2017 flight, known as Exploration Mission 1, is planned to conduct a lunar fly and enter a so-called "distant retrograde orbit" about 43,000 miles from the moon.

The 2017 test flight, planned to last more than three weeks, will be a pathfinder for NASA's asteroid redirect mission, an effort to send a robotic spacecraft into deep space and guide a 500-ton rock to a stable location near the moon for visits by human crews aboard the Orion spacecraft. The first crewed flight to an asteroid is expected no sooner than 2021.

A partially-functional Orion crew module will launch on an unmanned test flight in Earth orbit in September on-board a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket. This year's test flight will not include a European service module.

With a height and diameter of about four meters, or 13 feet, the service module is based on Europe's flight-proven Automated Transfer Vehicle, a robotic resupply spacecraft that has flown four times to the International Space Station. The ATV's fifth and final mission is scheduled for launch in June.

European industry is designing and building the service module's primary structure, power-generating solar arrays, and hardware for the craft's main propulsion system. NASA is providing an orbital maneuvering system engine from the space shuttle program.

Diagram of the key components of the Orion spacecraft. Photo credit: NASA
The agreement between ESA and NASA was ratified in December 2012 and covers the entire service module for the 2017 test flight and significant components for the service module on the first crewed Orion mission in 2021. The space agencies must negotiate for an expanded European role on the 2021 mission and on future flights, but U.S. and European officials have said they could extend the service module deal or modify the agreement.

ESA is spending about 450 million euros, or more than $600 million, on the service module development as part of a barter arrangement with NASA to pay for Europe's share of the International Space Station's operating costs.

The cargo capacity of the five ATV missions paid for ESA's slice of the space station's operations through 2017, but the end of the ATV program this year left Europe owing NASA for from 2017 until 2020.

The $600 million spent on the European service module for the Orion spacecraft meets ESA's financial commitment on the space station through 2020. Further barter agreements will be needed if Europe continues as a member of the space station program through 2024, as endorsed by NASA and the Obama administration last week.

ESA receives funding from its member states in multi-year tranches, and the agency's constituent nations signed off on 250 million euros ($340 million) for the service module project at a ministerial council meeting in November 2012.

Reiter said ESA would request the remaining 200 million euros ($270 million) in another ministerial conclave in December 2014, when member states will take up key decisions on Europe's long-term involvement in the space station and the next steps for the next-generation Ariane 6 launcher.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.