Big Support Contracts, Small Science Missions on NASA’s Radar

by

WASHINGTON — After awarding big-money human spaceflight contracts in 2012, NASA’s procurement focus for 2013 will shift to support work for those and other programs, and to some small and medium-sized science missions scheduled for launch late this decade or early next.

Among the biggest support contracts NASA is expected to award this year is the Johnson Space Center Engineering Technology and Science contract, known as JETS. The indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract supports the agency’s major human spaceflight programs, including the international space station and future missions that would use the Space Launch System rocket and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle NASA is building.

JETS has a five-year base period with options for four additional years. If NASA picks up all the options, the deal will be worth about $2 billion, according to one bidder. Jacobs Engineering Group, Pasadena, Calif., is the incumbent for JETS’ precursor contract, the $2.16 billion Engineering and Science contract. After receiving bids from Jacobs, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin and Greenbelt, Md.-based Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, NASA narrowed the field to Jacobs and Stinger Ghaffarian. An award is expected in early February.

Other engineering support contracts for which competition will begin or end this year are:

  • The Goddard Space Flight Center’s Mechanical Integrated Services and Technologies contract for spaceflight and ground system hardware and software support. A draft request for proposals is due Jan. 31, with a final solicitation expected in April. The five-year indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity follow-on to the center’s Mechanical and Related Services contract would be worth up to $505 million.
     
  • The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Deep Space Network Operations and Maintenance contract. NASA’s Deep Space Network enables communication with probes outside of Earth orbit. ITT Corp. is currently operating the network for NASA under a $576 million contract that runs through Sept. 30. NASA will announce the winner of the follow-on contract, which will have a performance period of up to 10 years, on May 1, according to  JPL. Proposals were due Dec. 13.
     
  • The Mountain View, Calif.-based Ames Research Center’s Fully Integrated Lifecycle Mission Support Services contract. The contract is to support “all phases of mission and project lifecycles for flight programs and projects, especially those for [the international space station] and those involving living organisms,” according to an online synopsis. The contract has a one-year base period and four years of options and is worth up to $215 million. A final solicitation was released Jan. 23; offers are due March 8.
     
  • The Intelligent Systems Research and Development Services, another Ames support contract. The selected contractor would provide research support for work with robotics and artificial intelligence systems, as well as “biologically inspired computer systems,” according to an online procurement note. Proposals will be due in March or April, and an award is expected by August. The contract has a three-year base period and two one-year options. Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies is the incumbent, having won the $300 million contract in 2008.

Meanwhile, although budgets remain tight in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, the agency will be starting competitions for some small missions this year. Most of these will be in the Astrophysics and Earth Science divisions, but even the cash-strapped Planetary Science Division has one competitive opportunity on the horizon.

Astrophysics appears to be the busiest NASA science division with respect to 2013 procurements. A down-selection is certain within the Explorer program, and a new solicitation for a full Explorer-class mission may also be in the cards.

If there is an announcement of opportunity for a new Small Explorer mission, it would arrive late this year, Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said in early January. Hertz cautioned that such a competition is contingent on funding.

Whether there is enough budget for another Explorer competition or not, NASA will announce the winner of an ongoing Explorer competition this spring. The agency is set to pick one $200 million mission and one $55 million mission of opportunity. There are now two finalists in each category.

Full Explorer mission candidates are:

  • The Fast Infrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer, which would observe the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system.
     
  • The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, an exoplanet hunter similar to the Kepler telescope that is now in an extended mission phase.

Candidate Explorer missions of opportunity — which are essentially astronomy instruments without dedicated spacecraft — are:

  • The Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, an X-ray timing instrument that would be hosted on the international space station and observe superdense neutron stars.
     
  • The Gal/Xgal U/LDB Spectroscopic/Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory, a 1-meter balloon-borne telescope that would observe the Milky Way and a neighboring galaxy.

NASA’s Earth Science Division, meanwhile, has two competitions on the slate for 2013 within its Earth System Science Pathfinder program: one for an Earth Venture Suborbital mission, which would fly on an aircraft or a suborbital rocket, and one for an Earth Venture Instruments mission, NASA spokesman Steve Cole said Jan. 24.

Earth Venture Instruments missions are the Earth Science Division’s answer to the rising launch costs that have limited space access for researchers in this field. In the Earth Venture Instrument program, a team led by a single principal investigator is responsible for building an instrument, but not for finding it a ride to space. NASA has made two such instrument awards already — including a pollution tracking instrument that will fly to space as a commercially hosted payload sometime after 2017 — and now plans to make one such award each year through 2015.

Compared with the procurement activity expected in the Astrophysics and Earth Science divisions, NASA’s Planetary Science Division will be somewhat quiet this year. The highlight will be an announcement of opportunity for science instruments to be sent to Mars in 2020 on a copy of the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover that landed there last August.

Jim Green, NASA planetary science director, said a science definition team is now working on a concept for the 2020 rover’s instrument payload with an announcement of opportunity due out later this year.

But Green also said “it’s not realistic” to expect any funding for the project to be awarded this year.

Besides the work on the new Mars rover’s science payload, procurement activity for Planetary Science missions will be thin this year. The next Discovery and New Frontiers competitions, for example, will not begin until around 2015, Green said.

The next Discovery mission — a $425 million JPL-led Mars lander called InSight — is scheduled to launch in late 2017, some six years after the September 2011 launch of the most recent Discovery mission, the twin Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory probes.

That marks a major slowdown for a program that from 1996 to 2011 launched a mission every two years.

New Frontiers missions — which are capped at $700 million — have had a five-year gap between launches so far, and Green expects the program to maintain that pace. The first New Frontiers mission, the New Horizons probe now on its way to the Pluto system, launched in 2006. The Jupiter-bound Juno polar orbiter launched in 2011, and the Osiris-Rex asteroid-sampling mission, selected in 2011 as the third New Frontiers mission, is slated for launch in 2016, around the time the competition for the fourth New Frontiers mission will begin.

A space industry consultant who spent decades working for Lockheed Martin Space Systems said the slowdown in new mission starts makes sense, given the budget pressure NASA faces.

“With the overall budget situation as well as business uncertainties [such as] sequestration [and] continuing resolutions, decisions are made to delay most of the new starts because you can’t really cut the operating missions,” Walt Faulconer, president of Strategic Space Solutions, Glenelg, Md., wrote in a Jan. 24 email.

SpaceNews Deputy Editor Brian Berger contributed to this report.