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.
The Orion service module is a co-production between NASA and the European Space Agency – a first for the space-flight industry. It is based on the ATV, an uncrewed, disposable cargo craft that ESA uses to supply the International Space Station.
If you like large things that go "bang", take a look at this successful test of the rocket panels. These will protect the service module from acoustic vibration, heat and wind as it powers through the densest, most damaging part of the atmosphere.