Next week, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus Defence and Space will sign an industrial contract to provide NASA with a propulsion system to take a crewed mission around the Moon in 2021.
ESA and Airbus are already providing a service module for a 2018 mission that will see the Orion spacecraft go around the Moon, but it won’t carry any crew and will be controlled remotely from Earth.
The European Service Module, ESM, will provide propulsion, electrical power, water, and thermal control to the Orion spacecraft, which will one day house astronauts on missions to space.
Although details might potentially change between now and the actual launch, Orion is expected to go farther than any human has ever gone before. On its flight around the Moon it will travel up to 500,000 kilometers (310,000 miles) from our planet. No human has gone beyond 400,000 kilometers (250,000 miles).
Orion will fly back around the Moon and then back to Earth, with the round trip taking 20 days. This will be followed by a crewed mission in 2021 with four astronauts on board, which will be the first time since 1972 that humans have left low-Earth orbit. Upon reentry, the ESM will separate and burn up in the atmosphere, while the Orion capsule will splash down in the Pacific.
“We are excited to be a part of this historic mission and appreciate NASA’s trust in us to help extend humanity’s exploration farther afield into our Solar System,” ESA’s Director of Human Space Flight, Dave Parker, said in a statement last December when the collaboration on the second ESM was announced.
The first ESM is currently being built in Bremen, Germany, by a team from 11 different countries led by Airbus. The second one will also be built in the same facility.
The planned Orion mission. Airbus Defence & Space/ESA