ESA and Airbus, in coordination with NASA, hosted an Artemis II media event at the Airbus facility in Bremen, Germany, on Friday, Sept. 15. In this event, the whole crew of Artemis II was present at the facility where Airbus assembles the Orion European Service Module (ESM). The ESM will provide life support and propulsion for the crew to fly to the Moon and back for the upcoming Artemis II mission and beyond. The first ESM mission was the Artemis I mission last year.
Part of the event was an open session with Artemis II astronauts Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, and Jeremy Hansen. In the question-and-answer session with the media, the crew talked about their experience visiting the engineers and facilities in Bremen during the last few days.
The crew remarked that they were amused to learn that the European crew calls Orion the “Penthouse” that will sit on top of the ESM. They also talked about their ongoing training, as, for example, Koch and Hansen recently performed some geology training in Canada as part of an evaluation of training activities for Artemis II and future lunar missions.
During the trip, the crew also visited the clean room, where ESM-3 is currently being worked on. Access to the clean room was limited because the main engine for the spacecraft is currently in integration. The Orion main engine is an AJ-10 engine previously flown on Space Shuttle missions.
One day before the event, it was also confirmed that Germany would join the Artemis Accords, which is a non-binding agreement between the United States and partner nations, to help the effort to bring humans back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond. Director General of the German Space Agency Walther Pelzer traveled to Washington to sign the accords together with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Sept. 14.
A video of the signing ceremony was also played at the event in Bremen, with messages from Nelson, Pelzer, and ESA astronauts Alexander Gerst and Matthias Maurer.
NSF was invited to conduct interviews with several key figures of the Orion and ESM programs, including Howard Hu, Manager of the Orion program at NASA, Philippe Berthe, Project Coordination Manager of Orion ESM at ESA, and Dario Saia, European Service Module Programme Manager at Thales Alenia Space.
Regarding the recap and analysis of the Artemis I mission, Hu said: “Wow! That’s the one-word summary! It was such a fantastic moment when it landed and touched down on December 11th. A combination of many years of hard work by a lot of people!”
“To see it crystalize in a safe and successful landing, where all of the parachutes deployed accomplishes something historic that has not been done in over 50 years!”
Artemis I was the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the ESM and the first flight of Orion with SLS. All components were tested in an uncrewed configuration for 25 days, flying from Earth to a distant retrograde orbit of the Moon and then returning. The mission splashed down on December 11 in the Pacific Ocean and was considered very successful.
Focusing on the ESM, the overperformance of the service module, Hu noted: “It’s one flight. It’s one flight data set. We will learn more about that with future flight data sets when we have a crew on board.”
“We always want more margins and more capabilities because the missions that are coming up will be even more challenging, so the need for power might be much greater than expected. But having a spacecraft with more significant margins makes you very happy!”
With respect to the potential to remove some margins on future flights, Hu said: “Of course, changing a spacecraft and the hardware would be a huge step because we already have the hardware built, and of course, you want to stabilize the design. I want to spend less money here and more money on other things, so if we can stabilize hardware and design, that saves us money.”
Berthe said regarding the performance of flight one: “We learned that we can work together as a team, not only during development but also during the execution of the mission. We have a strongly mixed team of European and NASA engineers.”
“The teams of NASA and ESA worked exceptionally well together. We also learned that the module performed remarkably well from a technical standpoint. We exceeded the expected performance from the module and executed the four maneuvers we were supposed to run around the Moon.”
“We also performed well in terms of power generation and thermal control,” Berthe added. “We are working on very few issues. One issue concerns the PCDU (Power Control and Distribution Unit), which we have worked on since the mission, and we think we have found the root cause, and now we are at the level of determining the corrective measures we must take.”
Berthe also added that the main reason that ESA could take so many pictures was that the ESM was operating on so much less power than expected. ESA could dedicate almost one solar panel to images, as it was no longer needed for the 2primary functions of the capsule.
Saia also provided his overview of ESM-1 performance on Artemis I: “I think we learned a lot about performance. We learned a lot about the critical components. We collected and gathered a lot of data, confirming our design worked!”
“But of course, that is not enough. This was only the first mission. Next time, it will be with a crew, so the next time, we might get demands and questions from the crew. We need to be ready and fast for that and focus on the mission, mainly the humans involved. It’s a different aspect we will have to consider.”
Saia also underlined that previous missions, such as the involvement of Thales Alenia Space in constructing the International Space Station (ISS) have helped Thales build all the knowledge needed to partner with a mission like Artemis.
Currently, the ESMs are in production through the module for the Artemis VI mission. ESM-3 is currently in the clean room, in the final steps of AJ-10 integration before the delivery to Kennedy Space Center in a few months, while ESM-4, ESM-5, and ESM-6 are already in different steps of the integration and assembly process.
Regarding the pre-production of the next module from Thales Alenia Space, Saia said: “We expect to have an award (for ESM-7 and beyond) very soon. We delivered [the primary structure for] ESM-4 in July 2022, ESM-5 in December 2022, and ESM-6 this year, so in one year, we have delivered three primary structures and are pretty fast.”
Following assembly at a Thales facility in Italy, the ESM primary structure is transported to Airbus Bremen to be fully assembled and integrated into a working spacecraft module prior to shipment from Germany to its Florida launch site.
Hu added about the contract extension: “From a NASA perspective, we expect the partnership to continue beyond ESM-6.” Regarding recent rumors about the SLS maybe using one more Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) instead of the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), Hu would not comment.
The first three Artemis missions will use the initial version of SLS that employs ICPS as its second stage. EUS is a larger, purpose-built upper stage being developed for SLS by the end of the decade, which will improve mission availability, flexibility, and enable an additional 10 metric tons of payload to be carried with Orion to the Moon.
Regarding the compatibility of the ESM to be used on either ICPS or EUS, he said: “They will be a little different in terms of loads. The EUS has a bit of a different load characteristic than the ICPS. There would be minor differences in the interface, but we already know what they are and could implement one or the other.”
Berthe added, “We are operating by the loads NASA requires. NASA is the master of the requirements. The loads are designed for the ICPS since we are flying the first three ESMs with the ICPS. For flight four, the design would change to the loads of the EUS, but there is no significant modification between the two.”
Saia said that from the perspective of TAS, they have the capability to make changes to the primary structure if necessary. “At the moment, we are not considering changes. Up to ESM-6, we will have no significant design change. We can adapt the design and are willing to do so if needed. The main goal is to adapt as we do it and change if we need it.”
Regarding the process leading up to the Artemis II mission planned for late 2024, Hu confirmed that every component is already integrated into the Orion spaceship. Next will be stacking the Crew Module and ESM and performing integrated testing on the mated system. After that, the capsule will be handed over to the ground team, fueling and loading the Orion module, stacking the launch abort system, and integrating it into the SLS rocket.
For Artemis III, he confirms that the teams are working like clockwork. The ESM is expected in Florida in a few months, and work is ongoing at the crew module. So far, no delays are expected on the Orion side of the stack.
He also added the following regarding the ability of the Orion to support different mission profiles should there be delays to the lunar lander or spacesuits in development for Artemis III: “Certainly, Orion has a lot of flexibility. We can fly a lot of different missions.”
“We are dependent on lander and suits. Those are two different programs, two different providers, and they have their schedules. We all have to come together to accomplish this mission. We all have to drive as quickly and safely as possible to get to this point, but these two programs are key.”
With respect to the Orion program’s readiness to support Artemis III, Hu said: “We know what our timeline is. We already have the hardware.”
“From our perspective, we have a very defined flow that allows us to produce the spacecraft. The same thing has to happen for the other two key components.”
For Artemis III, NASA has selected SpaceX to develop a lander based on the Starship infrastructure and Axiom Space to build a spacesuit for extravehicular activities, such as the first steps on the Moon. Both essential items face significant milestones before being ready for the Artemis III mission, currently planned for late 2025.
One hardware change down the line for the ESM will be moving from Orbital Maneuvering System engines leftover from the Space Shuttle program to new AJ-10s, being developed to very similar specifications for Orion. This is scheduled to happen after Artemis VI.
Regarding the status of developing the successor, Berthe said: “The development is underway. We are on schedule for delivery of the first new engine for ESM-7. Of course, it is also part of the contract extension from ESM-7 to ESM-9. One criterion is the same form, fit, and function as previous engines. It is a matter of schedule, but we are on track!”
NSF also asked Phlippe Berthe about the potential of getting European astronauts to the Moon. Currently, ESA will get three slots in the Moon orbit, but an agreement for travel to the surface of the Moon has yet to be present. Berthe said about this: “This is the next step of the negotiations, I would say. We need to bring something new to barter, to provide added contributions to NASA to justify having an Astronaut on the surface.”
“This is mainly Argonaut. Argonaut will be a lunar lander launched by Ariane 6, which will deliver 1 to 1.5 tons of hardware to the surface of the Moon. We are discussing with NASA how we could exchange a series of logistics missions to the surface of the Moon, with a European on the surface of the Moon.”
(Lead image: Artemis II crew talking in Bremen. Credit: Airbus Defense&Space)