To work as an exploration vehicle, Orion will need more than a pressurized capsule for crews. As NASA struggles to stay within its human-spaceflight budget, its managers have opened talks that could lead to a European contribution to the vehicle's service module.

NASA and the European Space Agency are studying a possible deal that would bring ESA into a partnership on Orion, using existing facilities and skills to build service-module structure and systems for the U.S. human spacecraft. European industry already has extensive human-spaceflight experience, and the two agencies are figuring out if it makes sense to apply that experience to the utility closet for the propulsion, power and life-support systems that would permit Orion crews to explore beyond low Earth orbit.

Europeans have built more than half of the pressurized modules that make up the International Space Station at the Thales Alenia Space factory in Turin, Italy, that also builds the Automated Transfer Vehicle. The ATV—an unmanned cargo vehicle that can deliver about six metric tons of cargo to the ISS—has many of the attributes that would go into a service module for the Orion capsule.

“We're looking to see if there's a way that they could do something along the lines of what they've already done with ATV, and could they take those kinds of systems and turn them into a service module that we could potentially use with Orion,” says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “We're kind of talking about that at a high level. We're probably a couple of years away from actually implementing something along those lines.”

Gerstenmaier stresses that the talks are “really preliminary,” and conceded that “it's politically a hot topic here, if it appears we're taking work away from U.S. companies.” The idea, he says, is to determine if it is feasible to use European participation to free up funds for other development work in the U.S. Ultimately, the service module probably would be produced in the U.S., he adds. “If this doesn't cost too much in terms of either money or integration overhead, then this is a way to advance the Orion capabilities at a faster pace, but it means no less money going to U.S. companies.”

Lockheed Martin remains under contract to build the service module, along with the rest of Orion. But at NASA's request the company is helping ESA as it goes through its examination of what it would take to have the service module work done in Europe.

“We all believe that when we do exploration of the Solar System, we're going to do it internationally; it won't just be the United States,” says Lawrence Price, Lockheed Martin's deputy Orion program manager. “So the sooner we can get all of the international parties with all of their expertise involved in the program, the better off we'll be.”

As currently envisioned, ESA would provide service module elements to NASA under the same sort of barter arrangements that the ISS partners use among themselves. NASA in turn would pass them on to Lockheed Martin as government-furnished equipment to integrate with the Orion capsule.

“There's a good reason to do it, and we're trying to help them assess what the best approach is,” says Price.

At present, the two programs are studying whether ESA can use its ATV heritage to build service-module gear that will work with the U.S. vehicle in “the most weight-efficient way,” Price says, noting that his company is providing tradeoff data to support that decision. There will be a systems-requirement review for the concept at the end of January, and a mid-point assessment of the concept in February. If that is positive, ESA will work out a detailed plan to present for approval at its ministerial conference in October, Price says.

“The United States would like to have a total capability of their Earth-to-orbit and return, so they wouldn't be dependent on economies and budgets and political determinations,” he says. “And the Europeans have a certain amount of funding that they could apply to it, which is associated with the space station arrangement.”

In the concept's broad terms, ESA would provide two service modules to NASA for integration into early Orion capsules. That could cover the first two flight tests of full-up Orion vehicles, now scheduled in 2017 and 2021. “Beyond that it's like our own budgetary process; no one knows what the budget numbers will be,” Price says.