The European Space Agency (ESA) announced Wednesday that the second European Service Module (ESM-2) for NASA’s Orion spacecraft left the continent for the United States, its last trip on Earth before it carries astronauts to a lunar orbit.
Housed in a custom-built container aboard an aircraft, the module flew across the Atlantic from Bremen, Germany, arriving at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Once the ESM-2 and the crew module are connected, the pair will constitute the Orion spacecraft, a critical part of the Artemis II mission to establish a human presence on the Moon.
Artemis II will be the first crewed mission to the Moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. After completing the Artemis I mission, an uncrewed test flight around the moon scheduled to launch in November, Orion will attempt a similar demonstration with humans on board.
In the future, Orion will transport astronauts to the lunar gateway, a successor project to the International Space Station that will place a spaceship in orbit around the Moon to enable missions to the Moon and Mars. The Gateway will act as a staging post, providing shelter and supplies to astronauts en route to more distant destinations, as well as relaying communications and functioning as a base for scientific research.
“This is another big step forward to the Moon for ESA,” said David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration. “Our astronauts will fly to the lunar Gateway aboard Orion. Meanwhile, we are working to have ESA astronauts on the Moon by the end of this decade, and keep our sights on Mars as the horizon goal of human exploration.”
The service module is a critical element for Orion. It provides propulsion, power and thermal control and will supply astronauts with water and oxygen.
With the exception of the main engine, which returns to American soil after testing in Germany, the service module consists of parts made in 10 European countries.
ESA is delivering up to six modules to NASA, one per year with Airbus as its prime contractor for building them. Three more are currently under negotiation for the lunar Gateway.
“Agencies, industry and teams from different continents are working around the clock in a tremendous international effort to take this complex spacecraft to the launch pad,” said Cathy Koerner, NASA Orion program manager, during a press event held by Airbus last week.
With the arrival of ESM-2, this marks the first time three Orion spacecraft will be at the Kennedy Space Center at various stages of assembly and integration.
The first Orion spacecraft will be integrated on top of the Space Launch System rocket in its final preparations for the Artemis I mission. The second spacecraft containing the ESM-2 must undergo extensive testing before it can be integrated with its launcher.
Although the third European Service Module is still at the start of its integration phase in Europe where equipment dummies, brackets and harness will be added to the structure, the main pressure vessel for Artemis III, which will see the first woman and next man setting foot on the Moon, has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center as well.