US and European space agencies to fly humans far into deep space

Space exploration

Newscast Media WASHINGTON, D.C.—NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are working together to build a spacecraft that will take a human crew farther into space than ever before. The two agencies finalized an agreement for ESA to provide Orion, NASA’s spacecraft for human exploration, with a module performing critical functions such as propulsion, power generation and storage of crew supplies.

Officials from both agencies talked to reporters about the mission in a news conference January 16 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer said the mission will build on the cooperative multinational space activities that have taken place on the International Space Station.

“A lot of the same experts are working on both sides,” said Geyer. “We get to apply that to this great exploration mission.”

The Orion crew module, being built by NASA, is set for its first test flight in 2014. An uncrewed flight is planned beyond Earth orbit in 2017. The first crew is set to journey into space on Orion by 2021, according to the long-range plan prepared by the U.S. space agency.

Human space flight has not gone beyond low-Earth orbit since the end of the Apollo program, which put the first humans on the moon but ended in 1972. Thomas Reiter, ESA director of human spaceflight and operations, was also on the Houston panel. He said the collaboration between the two space agencies is no mere gesture of political convenience, but an opportunity “to exploit synergies that have been developed in the past and that can be beneficial for reaching common objectives.”

William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration, said the work ahead will be “difficult and complicated,” but also “inspiring.”

While engineers and technicians are working to build the hardware that will propel a crew into space and sustain it there, discussions are still under way about exactly where the crew may be going. Another visit to an unexplored part of the moon, a voyage to an asteroid and, eventually, a trip to Mars are all being considered. Gerstenmaier and the engineering staff are not troubled that the destination is still unclear.

“We’re building a system that will allow us to go explore [multiple destinations],” he said. “We want a system that can actually push human presence out into the solar system and allow us to go to these different destinations.”

From an engineering standpoint, Gerstenmaier said, scientists already know the demands that will be put on the Orion spacecraft and the capabilities that must be built into the craft: the load it can carry, the fuel it will need, and the supplies and resources that must be built into the mission to sustain a crew on a long-term mission.

As the NASA-ESA team works toward the 2017 flight deadline, progress is being made on a number of individual spacecraft components and systems. Geyer said several of these are set for completion in 2013 to be handed over to the team responsible for incorporating them into the launch vehicle.

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