Airbus has played an important role in human spaceflight, beginning with the Spacelab reusable laboratory flown on the U.S. Space Shuttle, followed by development of the Columbus module for the International Space Station (ISS) and the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) resupply spacecraft that serviced ISS. All share a common heritage, with Airbus’ expertise now being applied to the European Service Module (ESM) that will equip Orion – the next U.S. NASA spacecraft that will send humans into space.
With construction beginning in 1974, Spacelab was built by Airbus predecessor company VFW/ERNO in Bremen, Germany, and enabled astronauts to perform microgravity experiments in a “shirtsleeve” laboratory environment while the Space Shuttle was in orbit. It consisted of multiple components, including a 4.06-metre wide pressurised cylindrical module that would accommodate crew members for research work during a Space Shuttle flight, along with an unpressurised pallet and other related hardware – all securely fitted in the Space Shuttle's cargo bay.
Depending on specific mission and payload requirements, these components were assembled in different configurations (one or two module segments, and up to five pallets). The initial Spacelab laboratory module was financed by the European Space Agency (at that time ESRO) in exchange for European astronaut flight opportunities on the Space Shuttle, while a second module was purchased by NASA from VFW/ERNO. Some 22 major Spacelab missions were performed on Space Shuttles launched from Florida between 1983 and 1998, and Spacelab hardware was used on several other Space Shuttle flights – with some of the pallets being flown through 2008.
The legacy of Spacelab continued with the Columbus science laboratory module, which is permanently mated to the International Space Station. Its functional equipment and software were designed by Airbus forerunner company EADS Astrium Space Transportation in Bremen, and the module was fully integrated in Bremen before being flown to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis in February 2008.
Columbus originally was part of a European Space Agency (ESA) programme that supplemented America’s then-envisioned Freedom space station. Managed by prime contractor MBB-ERNO, it foresaw the development of three elements – of which a Man-Tended Free Flyer (MTFF) was the most ambitious. The MTFF would serve as an autonomous mini-station for microgravity experiments, serviced by France’s Hermes spaceplane (under development by Airbus predecessor company Aerospatiale), and which could fly periodically to the Freedom space station for maintenance and reconfiguration. The other two elements were an Attached Pressurized Module (APM) to be docked with the Freedom space station and used by crews for in-orbit activities, and an unmanned Polar Platform (PPF) for remote sensing.
Due to the projection of high programme costs and other factors, the Man-Tended Free Flyer was cancelled, along with Hermes – which faced funding issues, challenging performance goals and delays of its own. The Attached Pressurized Module subsequently became the Columbus module that ultimately docked with the International Space Station in 2008, while the Polar Platform (PPF) evolved into a separate programme – leading to the future series of European-developed polar-orbiting spacecraft for Earth monitoring and weather forecasting.
Airbus’ heritage in developing, producing and equipping space-qualified modules led to another important programme: Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), a servicing spacecraft for the International Space Station with the delivery of propellant, water, air, payload and experiment equipment. The ATV development contract was awarded in December 1998 by the European Space Agency to Airbus predecessor company Aérospatiale as principal contractor, which worked multiple major subcontractors, including Franco-British firm Matra Marconi Space and Germany’s DaimlerChrysler Aerospace (DASA) – both of which subsequently became part of today’s Airbus as part of restructuring and ownership changes.
In total, five ATVs were built and orbited by Ariane 5 heavy-lift launchers from French Guiana for docking with the International Space Station, spanning a period from March 2008 to July 2014. During their use, the ATVs delivered to more than 31,500 kg. of supplies to the International Space Station. They also served as a “tug,” raising the station’s orbital altitude numerous times and helping manoeuvre the facility clear of potential contact with space debris. Upon completing their duties while attached to the International Space Station, the ATVs could be would often be filled with up to 6,500 kg. for a controlled destructive re-entry in the atmosphere.
The ATVs reinforced the ability of Airbus and European industry to undertake complex spacecraft and systems that support human spaceflight, including the ability to perform automatic dockings with orbital facilities such as the International Space Station. As a result, Airbus achieved a status long precluded by the U.S. – treatment as full partner to NASA in major space programme. This occurred with Airbus’ 2014 selection as prime contractor for development and manufacture of the European Service Module (ESM) to equip NASA’s Orion – the next-generation spacecraft that will transport astronauts to the Moon and beyond.
For the first time, NASA will use a European-built system as a critical element to power and propel an American spacecraft, with the cylindrically-shaped ESM functioning as Orion’s powerhouse – supplying it with the electricity, propulsion, thermal control, air and water it needs in space. The ESM’s radiators and heat exchangers will keep the astronauts and equipment at a comfortable temperature, while the module’s structure forms the Orion vehicle’s backbone.
Airbus delivered the first European Service Module from its site in Bremen, Germany during November 2018, marking an important step toward Orion’s first flight, known as Exploration Mission-1, scheduled for 2020. This mission – performed without a crew – will take the spacecraft more than 64,000 km. beyond the Moon in order to demonstrate its capabilities. The initial human spaceflight mission, Exploration Mission-2, is planned for 2022.
Looking to the future, the European Space Agency in 2018 commissioned Airbus for two studies on possible European involvement in a future lunar-orbiting human base known as the Gateway. As part of a far-reaching European partnership, Airbus is tasked with developing a concept for a Gateway habitation and research module, followed by defining an infrastructure element for refuelling, docking and telecommunications functions at the human base, which will also serve as an airlock for scientific equipment.
The Gateway is envisaged as a lunar platform that serves as a staging point for human missions to the Moon or Mars, with testing planned for a series of technologies and procedures that will be needed. This project involves global participation, bringing together the U.S., Russian, Canadian, Japanese and European space agencies.