Rockets get all the glory, but this unthrilling structure could be keeping astronauts alive in a few years' time. It is the service module for NASA's forthcoming deep-space capsule, Orion, which is being groomed to ferry astronauts to the moon, asteroids and perhaps even Mars.
Anyone who remembers the terrifying Apollo 13 disaster, en route to the moon in April 1970, will recall how vitally important the service module is. Wiring insulation inside a liquid oxygen tank on the Apollo 13 service module failed, leading to an explosion that crippled the spacecraft and left the crew capsule to be pushed back to Earth by the lunar lander. Luckily, thanks to some heroic improvisation, all on board survived.
Service modules are tricky things to build because the absolute essentials of life – water and air – have to sit beside volatile thruster propellants and hot electronics. There is nowhere else they can be placed: the conical shroud at the bottom of the service module connects to the top of the rocket – which is discarded once its job is done – and the crew capsule sits on top of the service module.
This particular module won't carry all of its life-support kit when it flies a 4-hour, uncrewed orbital test flight in September. But future Orions will travel to the moon in 2017, unscrewed, followed by a crewed mission in 2021. Experiences on those trips will give NASA an idea of its suitability for a Mars mission.To read more, click here.