Two years ago, the president of the United States made it clear that a return to the moon was not a priority for American spaceflight, but it seems he may have forgotten to tell NASA. American astronauts are apparently planning to head back to the moon less than 10 years from now. At least, that's what the European Space Agency says.
Though NASA hasn't confirmed the story, the ESA announced earlier this month that it's working on a service module for the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, NASA's still-in-development craft for deep-space exploration. The module will apparently be based on the ESA's successful Automated Transfer Vehicle, a drone craft designed to ferry cargo to the International Space Station.
What's this new module for? Well, according to the ESA, it's for not one, but two NASA moon missions. The first, in 2017, will be unmanned, but the second will be a manned mission to lunar orbit in 2019 which, if NASA pulls it off, will be the first time humans have been that close to the moon since Apollo 17 left the lunar surface in December 1972.
Though it's not a sure thing yet, and NASA's still not talking (particularly about that 2019 mission), the ESA and its developers are seeing this as a major boost for future space flights, and for the capabilities of the agency.
"This is the first time NASA has asked a non-US country to develop a critical technology for a manned space flight program," said Matthias Spude of EADS Astrium, the German company that builds the ESA's ATV.
Lockheed Martin was originally tasked with building the service module for NASA, but when it became clear that the ATV could be repurposed (saving money and getting the benefit of a proven design), NASA went to the ESA instead. Though the design will be heavily derived from the ATV, the Orion service module will have a few changes.
"For instance, the service module will not carry cargo like ATV, nor will it have its automated docking intelligence that will be in the Orion capsule," said Nico Dettman, who heads the ESA's research program for the ATV.
The NASA team-up also means that the ATV's four engines will be replaced with one 27-kilonewton engine originally meant for use on the space shuttle, saving still more money by re-using old components. The module will keep the 24-thruster system of the ATV, which allows for pinpoint maneuvering while docking with the ISS.
According to NASA, the Orion craft will be launched from the still-in-development rocket known as the Space Launch System, which has the capability to take us to Mars and beyond. Apparently, though, the moon is first, unless NASA decides sometime in the next seven years that it isn't.
What do you think? Is a return to lunar orbit the right move for NASA?