NASA’s Orion Spacecraft is One Step Closer to its First Moon Mission

Built to hold people, NASA’s Orion spacecraft is one step closer to its first mission to fly around the moon and back, according to a recent announcement by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The ESA said their European Service Module, which will be used to power and propel the Orion spacecraft, will be shipped this week from Bremen, Germany, to the United States on an Antonov An-124 aircraft. It’ll leave in the early hours of November 5 and arrive at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 6.

The ESM, engineered in Italy and Germany, is a vital European part of NASA’s ambitious Space Launch System or SLS; the Orion spacecraft part of SLS is built to take astronauts back to the moon for the first time since the 1970s.

The European Service Module will hold fuel in large tanks, in addition to water, oxygen and nitrogen for the passengers, while radiators and heat exchangers will help keep the module at adequate temperatures.

The module itself looks like ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, which has been used to bring supplies to the International Space Station. The structure is the cornerstone of the entire vehicle, similar to a car chassis.

Three types of engines will be used to propel Orion during its adventures, and it can turn the spacecraft in all directions. Airbus Defence and Space will build the module, and many other companies across Europe will also supply parts.

This marks the first time that a European-built system will function as a vital element to power an American spacecraft. The reason is mainly due to ESA’s existing Automated Transfer Vehicle program.

So what comes next?

Once it arrives at the Kennedy Space Center, the European Service Module will be connected to the Orion crew module and its adapter to get ready for Exploration Mission-1. This mission is planned as an un-crewed initial test flight that will travel farther into space than any human-rated spacecraft has ever flown before. This mission is expected to launch sometime in 2020.

A second European Service Module, similar to the first, is also in development. This one will be capable of ferrying a human crew on a trip around the moon. All of this activity is leading up to launches with components of the Gateway — a planned human-tended outpost in lunar orbit engineered to be used for both human and robotic exploration of the moon.

Orion is the crewed capsule part of NASA’s Space Launch System, which, when finished, will be the most powerful rocket ever made. It will be capable of taking astronauts back to the moon, and more advanced versions of SLS will be able to carry astronauts even deeper into space, even to Mars.

As the mission website details, after the first flight, the next step is to start sending people on daring missions to the moon and beyond. As SLS evolves over future missions to the unprecedented accommodation of payload mass and volume and unrivalled performance, the rocket will enable NASA to send missions to deep space and reach distant destinations faster than ever before.

Furthermore, on its second mission carrying Orion and astronauts, Exploration Mission-2, SLS will send Orion and its crew farther than humans have travelled before approximately 250,000 miles from Earth, 10,000 miles beyond the moon.

In sum, the delivery of the European Service Module is another step toward the first launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft — part of the Space Launch System — which is built to take astronauts back to the moon for the first time since the 1970s. Human missions back to the moon are still some ways off, but the first launch of Orion will be a significant move forward.

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