HOUSTON -

Mars is one of the first steps in the next giant leap for mankind, and Houston is playing a major role in laying the groundwork for the missions.

NASA's Orion EM1 is scheduled to launch into space in 2017. This will lay the groundwork for the first humans to set foot on another planet. It will also mark a historic collaboration between nations.

On Wednesday, NASA announced the European Space Agency will provide the propulsion that will get Orion further into space than ever before.

"We are really doing international cooperation here," said Bill Gerstenmaier of NASA. "And as we push humans out into the solar system, we're doing it internationally. And this is that first step."

Representatives from the European Space Agency, comprised of 20 European nations, were at Johnson Space Center Wednesday to announce a historic international partnership that will call for the ESA to develop Orion's service module.

The partnership is considered a step beyond its current collaboration of the International Space Station.

"This is now where all these activities are basically convening in this cooperation," said Thomas Reiter, ESA Human Spaceflight Director.

NASA officials said if all goes well, the ESA could play a much larger role in Orion's EM2 Mission in 2021. The Johnson Space Center will train the astronauts for that mission as well as serve as mission control.

"We've learned the real meaning of cooperation," said Gerstenmaier. "It isn't actually counting on your partner to be there. It's actually giving up a piece of the spacecraft or the piece of work that you're going to do and actually counting on that partner to deliver."

Officials said next up for the Orion program is the exploration flight test set to launch in 2014. It will be the first chance to see if Orion can withstand reentry at speeds of up to 20,000 miles per hour.