ESA teams with NASA for manned moon orbit

The European Space Agency is teaming up with NASA for a mission that will take human beings beyond Earth orbit for the first time in 40 years – and eventually, it says, further than ever before.

It’s agreed to adapt its unmanned cargo vessel, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), to hold a NASA-built crew compartment for the Orion spacecraft, with launch set for 2017.

ATVs have been resupplying the International Space Station since 2008, becoming an an extra module for the astronauts when docked.

The ESA service module will sit directly below Orion’s crew capsule, and will provide propulsion, power and thermal control, as well as supplying water and gas to the astronauts in the habitable module.

“ATV has proven itself on three flawless missions to the Space Station and this agreement is further confirmation that Europe is building advanced, dependable spacecraft,” says Nico Dettmann, head of ATV’s production programme.

The first Orion mission will be an unmanned lunar fly-by in 2017, with the spacecraft returning to Earth atmosphere at a speed of 11 kilometers per second – the fastest reentry ever.

But in 2021, it’s hoped, the capsule will get a manned mission, possibly orbiting the moon for up to four days.

“It is a testament to the engineering progress made to date that we are ready to begin integrating designs of an ESA-built service module with Orion,” says Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA headquarters in Washington DC.