NASA’s Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a European Space Module. (Image source: NASA)

First Orion European Space Module delivered

The European Space Module arrived in Florida for the upcoming 2020 Orion Exploration Mission 1.
The first European Space Module (ESM) just arrived in Titusville, Florida in preparation for its installation on the next-generation Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle and testing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. With Orion capsule testing and the ESM delivery milestone complete, NASA is two years out from Orion Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) – the program’s unmanned spacecraft validation mission around the Moon in 2020.

Developed and built by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Ottobrunn, Germany-based Airbus Defence and Space, the ESM will provide space propulsion and course correction once the Orion spacecraft separates from the Space Launch System heavy-lift launch vehicle. The module will also supply the Orion spacecraft with power, water, and thermal control.

Read more: Final Orion capsule parachute system test successful


An artist’s impression of the ESM directly below the Orion capsule (Image source: ESA) 

According to NASA, the ESM marks the first time the agency will use a European-built system as a critical element to power an American spacecraft and extends NASA’s international cooperation from the International Space Station (ISS) into deep space exploration.

The cylindrical ESM resembles ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) developed by the European agency to deliver payload mass – or upmass – to the ISS. Including the main engine and propellant tanks, the ESM is four meters long with a 19-meter-wide solar array. The module has one main engine that delivers forward thrust and 32 smaller thrusters for omnidirectional course correction. In total, the ESM propulsion system uses approximately 9 tons of propellant.

ESA’s ATV-4 – the basis for the Orion Program’s ESM, approached ISS in 2013. (Image source: NASA/ESA)

The 14-ton ESM was transported from an ESA facility in Bremen, Germany in a special temperature- and pressure-controlled container aboard a Volga-Dnepr Airlines Antonov An-124-100 commercial transport aircraft. The transport aircraft also brought with it 10 tons of ESM support equipment.

“It is an honor for us to be supporting such a significant and historic endeavor. Providing specialist transportation for the aerospace industry is one of Volga-Dnepr Airlines’ key areas of expertise and every year we operate more than 50 flights carrying various space cargoes, including satellites, parts of spacecraft, rockets, and boosters,” says Volga-Dnepr Airlines Executive President for Cargo Charter Operations, Konstantin Vekshin.

The ESM is loaded into a Volga-Dnepr Airlines Antonov An-124-100 commercial transport aircraft for transport to Florida. (Image source: Volga-Dnepr Airlines)

For 30 years, the An-124 held the title of world's heaviest gross weight production cargo airplane until the development of the Boeing 747-8 Freighter in 2005. The An-124 still remains the largest military transport aircraft in the world.

 “The unique capabilities of our Antonov 124-100 and Ilyushin 76TD-90VD freighters, with their ramp loading capabilities and onboard crane systems, combined with our three decades of experience, enables our team of experts to provide safe, secure, time-saving, and cost-efficient solutions for deliveries of such important and sensitive cargoes. We wish this unique, history-changing space mission every success,” continues Vekshin.

These partnerships and exploration missions are exactly the foundation needed for space technology development.

Orion’s course for the EM-1 mission and for future manned missions exceed distances travelled by astronauts since Apollo 17 – the last lunar landing – in 1972. (Image source: Airbus Defence and Space)

For the last 40 years, humans have been travelling into low-Earth orbit. In 2022, two years after EM-1, Orion will take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, further into space than ever before to collect scientific data and develop enabling technologies – potentially for when the time comes to send humans to Mars of further.

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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.

Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at

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