SLS is nearing its debut flight, with the Artemis I launch window opening this Monday at 16:33 UTC. But this launch is impactful beyond NASA and the United States. The European Service Module (ESM) will provide a wide range of services for Orion on its way to the moon, including propulsion and power. It is built by a large coalition of European partners, and the final assembly is done by Airbus Space and Defense in Bremen, Germany.
NASASpaceflight spoke with Kai Bergemann, Deputy Programme Manager for Orion ESM and the responsible project manager for the ESM-3 module and beyond. He earned a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Munich and started at Airbus in 2008.
Before the interview, NASASpaceflight also had the opportunity to look at ESM-3 and ESM-4, the service modules for Artemis III and IV currently in Bremen’s clean room. They are progressing well in their assembly, according to Bergemann.
“For ESM-3, which today you saw in the clean room, we are in the middle of integration of the first sub-assemblies. Piping, thermal control system, and tubing are going in currently. Also, we start our integration work on the propulsion side so harness integration. You probably saw many, many cables in there already.”
“So that’s currently ongoing. Also, the structural integration of primary and secondary structures or the brackets are currently being integrated, which is the preparatory step for the next integration to come when more boxes are coming in. More tubing is coming in and we have the support structure here available.”
“So the fourth module that you saw there, the primary structure, was recently delivered by our subcontractor, Thales Alenia Space. So that is in the arrival status in the clean room. And here the next step is to get the brackets in and then to catch up on what you saw on the ESM-3.”
Regarding the delivery timelines, Airbus plans to deliver one service module a year, going forward. Not only from an organizational structure but also to underline the capabilities of the European partners for NASA.
“We are envisioning delivery in summer next year. This date is super important for us. We, as European industry, together with our direct customer, the agency, are part of this big, multinational endeavor and so everyone carries their share in making this thing a success and our European promise is that we will deliver in the summer of next year.”
“It’s a challenge I can tell you, we are on a very good track. We are seeing that individual problems that we had, for example on one of the valves, we had some issues in the development there, that we have overcome. So that particular problem, for example, is off the critical path. And so we are working item by item to see that we can stick to the promised delivery Summer next year.”
“Once integration is finished, the next step will be the testing of the various subsystems. Electrical test, the ‘power on’ of the system, then the functional test of the propulsion, of the thermal system, the consumables storage. All of that will happen before we ship it in Summer next year.”
Regarding the delivery date, he confirmed that Airbus is right now on track for a delivery as planned.
Going forward, he outlined the involvement of Airbus with the coming flights of Artemis I and Artemis II.
“We are deeply involved in that. Yes, it was a mission led by NASA and also the flight, that’s a NASA mission, but our participation in that one is absolutely crucial because the people sitting on the console together with our US partners.”
“Those people need to be the ones who really understand the system and who know every single bit of it, such that we’re using this time to get prepared for the mission to get prepared for every single scenario that we can think of, in order to provide not only a good vehicle but also the operational capability to operate this in such a manner that the crew returns safely.”
“So you can understand a little bit like a back office then. So of course, if the problem gets too tricky, you really want to have the person at the table, who knows that vehicle by heart and that is us.”
Going forward, all SLS flights will be crewed, and Bergemann also touched on this point, what it means for the team, that their hardware will be used to fly crew in the future.
“And the fact that we are flying crew here, that is really what is bringing the emotions into our team. Many people are also coming from the Ariane business. But here we are flying people with families behind them.”
“Also, when we are meeting the astronauts, who come by, talking about their private lives, this brings so much emotion to the topic. So that you want the preparation of launch to be taken really seriously and therefore, I also think that it’s also absolutely mandatory that the people who have designed the vehicle really know that they are involved, not only up to delivery of the ESM but further on in preparation of the launch and then the operations of the vehicle itself.”
Regarding if this would mean that ESM-2 and forward had different approaches, he denied that.
“This doesn’t change anything. We are acting as if a crew is onboard for Artemis I for a fully simulated test flight.”
“In the past, the SLS program faced some delays in the timeline. Regarding the ESM, this does not change the delivery dates, as long as ESA is not adjusting accordingly. “
“We are having a contract with the European Space Agency. And this contract remains untouched until ESA decides to change the target dates. So if the agencies should decide that it’s not fitting, then it’s a different story. But for the time being that doesn’t change the thing of our contractual delivery obligation towards ESA.”
While no major component of the ESM was, or is, built by Russia or Ukraine, that does not mean that the ongoing war has not influenced the work at the ESM.
“It’s a little bit similar to other industries. Directly we are not impacted, but if you go down to the second tier or the third tier, you might find some raw materials that might be impacted.”
“Here together with the Airbus Group, we are having alternatives and that is, in this case, a real advantage to be part of such a big corporation. For example, titanium is not only used on the ESM but also on airplanes. And therefore it is a problem which is affecting various industries and we, as Airbus, are having the advantage that we can bundle our needs and look for alternatives.”
Specifically, about the involvement of the Antonov cargo aircraft, which was used in the past for the transport of the ESM, he laid out multiple alternatives. This also ties in with the plan to produce the ESM in an ongoing production chain.
“For ESM-4 and onwards, the baseline is the boat. That might sound surprising, but here if we want to go to a yearly cadence of delivering, that means we need to turn this whole program into a more and more normal recurring production program. And also include enough lead time to ship it by boat. This is how it’s done for the Ariane upper stage. This is how it was done for ATV. If we want to turn this into a normal, predictable cycle, then we can take boats.”
“If we are now deciding to ship it by plane, we also have alternatives for that. For example, the Columbus module was already shipped with the Beluga. Here we are looking into finding alternatives. We are also speaking to our US partners to see how they could maybe help, but here we are really having contractors and we’re not dependent on the single airplane.”
Regarding future ESM contracts, Airbus is right now contracted up until ESM-6, but this does not mean the partnership will end there. The future with ESA is already in negotiation with the same design that is flying starting on Artemis I.
“We have a contract up to ESM-6. And we are currently in the bidding phase of seven, eight, and nine. That will lead us to delivery dates of ESM-9 between 2029 and 2030.”
“And therefore it is also super important for us to have that long-term vision. Because here we can really, today take decisions that would enable us to be sustainable in delivery. For example, when we look into production, are we going to invest in another integration stand? If you would only go for the next two years, you could question that. But here, given the outlook of the next, let’s say seven to eight years, it’s clear that there’s a motivation also for us to really prepare for a yearly cadence.”
“It’s more or less the same service module also because our customer wants to have it comparable to the previous offer. But of course, in life, things change and so some changes are here. There are some technical modifications that are also asked simply because we are also facing obsolescence here and there. And therefore our customer is asking for some other adaptations.”
Regarding modifications in future modules, Bergemann outlined the fact that the major design will not change. However, there were some changes in the ESM in the past regarding certain sub-parts.
“So there are some things that we have to change simply because of obsolescence. For example, a valve, it’s not being produced by the manufacturer anymore. So we had to find an alternative that will be introduced from ESM-3 onwards. So far, only the changes where we have known issues of obsolescence.”
“Looking forward to the Artemis I flight, the maiden flight that will be a huge source of data for us. And I would not be too surprised if we find some elements in there, which give us the real view on the behavior of that vehicle which would then have an impact on our decision making to change or not to change one or the other thing.”
Building up to the Artemis I mission, there was a huge excitement in the facility from every person. While Bergemann was not flying over to America himself, he gave some insight into his mind this close to the mission.
“The teams have been working for more than 10 years on that. I still remember when it was 2014. When we had the PDR (Preliminary Design Review) of that vehicle, which turned out not to be how we wished it.”
“That was a difficult time for us. And now being able to see it being delivered to the customer and finally see it flying that emotional relief of 10 years of work that is indescribable and I can tell you the teams, they are so much looking forward to seeing our baby fly. The excitement here on the corridor is really, really there.”
“Personally, I’m not going, because not everyone here is going and so we will have an internal event on-site with a little party for the people. And I’m happy to speak a few words to those who have worked extremely hard over the last years and yet couldn’t come over to see the launch itself and happy to be here to spend time with all.”
This is one of three interviews NASASpaceflight conducted with Airbus. Stay tuned for the release of additional interviews with Siân Cleaver, Industrial Manager for the ESM program, and Matthias Gronowski, Chief Engineer of ESM.
(Lead image: Render of Orion orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA)