HOUSTON — NASA is taking on an international partner in its development of the next generation of space vehicle.

The Orion spacecraft, which is designed to take humans past low-Earth orbit and into deep space, will have key hardware provided by the European Space Agency.

The European agency will provide a major section of the vehicle’s service module, which is attached to the crew capsule.

“ESA will provide the core of (the service module), which has the propulsion, power generation, radiators and consumable storage,” Orion program manager Mark Geyer said. “So, it’s a key part of the service module.”

The hardware will be used in a flight set for 2017 and the work will cost ESA about $598 million.

ESA’s work will not affect Lockheed Martin’s contract for the Orion project. The company will now take on the task of integrating the ESA and NASA components.

“We’re not reducing Lockheed Martin’s contract,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “I’m not sure it really saves us money, but what it does is give us a more robust development schedule. It allows us to work smarter.”

The decision to give the development of a key component to a foreign space agency was not taken lightly.

“We put them in a critical path, and we probably would not have done that without our experience with the International Space Station,” Gerstenmaier said. “We learned the real meaning of cooperation. It isn’t just counting on your partner to be there, it’s giving up a piece of the work you are going to do.”

The move to build the service module is not a sign that ESA will pull out of the International Space Station.

“Low-Earth orbit will remain a destination for us,” Thomas Reiter, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and operations, said.

“We have a fantastic infrastructure that we will be using until the end of the decade,” he said.

The first unmanned test flight of Orion is coming up fast.

“It’s not just a PowerPoint picture,” Geyer said. “We’re actually flying in 20 months. We’re down at (Kennedy Space Center) installing software as we speak.”

Contact reporter John DeLapp at 409-683-5244 or john.delapp@galvnews.com.

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