WASHINGTON — The big aerospace firms might find only a couple of plum NASA contracts to pursue in 2007, but industry analysts foresee stronger opportunities for small and mid-size companies to find supporting roles on some of the large prime contracts already awarded.

“The procurement environment for the traditional prime contractors is going to be tough for some time to come on the NASA side,” said Jim Cantrell, president of Strategic Space Development, a Hyde Park, Utah-based consulting firm. “There are some opportunities yet to be had for the mid-size primes.”

Brett Lambert, managing partner of the Densmore Group, a consulting firm based here, agreed that 2007 looks a little meager for the big primes coming off a year that saw Lockheed Martin beat out Northrop Grumman and Boeing for a $3.9 billion contract to design and build the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, and Promontory, Utah-based Alliant Tech Systems and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne pick up sole source awards worth hundreds of millions of dollars more to help NASA build Orion’s launcher, the Ares 1.

But smaller firms — what he described as second- and third-tier suppliers — and even some of the traditional primes should find plenty of opportunities as Orion and Ares dollars trickle down in the form of subcontracts still to be awarded.

“It’s going to be mostly about trying to feed yourself around the edges of the big omnibus contracts that have already been let,” he said. “There’s just not a lot of big ticket items out there.”

One notable exception is the Ares 1 upper stage. While NASA already has chosen Canoga Park, Calif.-based Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to develop the J-2X engine that will power the upper stage, NASA has yet to pick its industry partner for designing and building the fully integrated upper stage. Industry analysts estimate that the so-called production contract NASA intends to award in August 2007 could be worth as much as $900 million. A separate contract for the upper stage’s avionics system, slated for a November 2007 award, could be worth another $400 million or more, analysts said.

Alliant Tech Systems, the lead contractor for the Ares 1 solid-rocket-booster main stage, announced in September it would team with Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to compete for the Ares 1 upper-stage production contract. Boeing also has said it intends to go after the upper-stage production contract , but has not announced its team or said whether it will partner with Northrop Grumman, as it did in its unsuccessful bid for the Orion prime contract.

Northrop Grumman spokesman Brooks McKinney ruled out the possibility that the Los Angeles-based aerospace contractor would lead a bid for the Ares 1 upper-stage production contract, but left open the possibility that the company would support a Boeing-led effort. “We do not plan to pursue an Ares 1 prime contract,” McKinney said in an e-mail Nov. 9. “We have not made any public announcement about possible teaming agreements.”

NASA officials anticipate a wider field of qualified competitors for the avionics work, which is why it is being done under a separate contract. Companies sizing up the avionics opportunity include BAE Systems, Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Computer Sciences Corp., Honeywell, Orbital Sciences and Raytheon.

NASA also intends to award a half- dozen smaller contracts starting in January to support some of the advanced development work on the Ares 1 upper stage. Steve Cook, the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center official in charge of the Ares program, said the contracts, some worth perhaps $10 million to $20 million apiece, are intended to help requalify vendors that have not seen a lot of cryogenic work in recent years.

Rounding out NASA’s Exploration Systems acquisition activity for 2007 will be a request for proposals, due out in September, for a Constellation Space Suit System that can be used by international space station-bound Orion astronauts and be evolved for use on later missions. NASA anticipates a contract award in March 2008.

Analysts said interested bidders include the three companies that supply the space suits NASA astronauts use for space shuttle missions and spacewalks: Dave Clark Company of Worcester, Mass., Hamilton Sundstrand of Windsor Locks, Conn., and ILC Dover, Dover, Del.

Aerospace companies traditionally focused on supporting NASA Science Mission Directorate programs could have a harder time finding big new opportunities in 2007.

NASA spokeswoman Erica Hupp identified just one major new competition in 2007 for either a spacecraft or instrument. NASA intends to award separate contracts next year for an instrument and spacecraft bus that its own Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will assemble into the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), a remote sensing satellite intended to replace the U.S. Landsat satellites currently in orbit.

Hupp said NASA aniticipates releasing the request for proposals for the Landsat instrument in January with a contract award expected by mid-year. NASA then plans to select an appropriate spacecraft bus from a catalog of pre-qualified vendors maintained by Goddard’s Rapid Spacecraft Development Office. That catalog currently includes offerings from Ball Aerospace, EADS Astrium of Europe, Orbital Sciences, General Dynamics Gilbert, Ariz.-based Spectrum Astro division, and the United Kingdom’s Surrey Satellite Technology, Ltd. Other companies interested in having their bus designs included in the catalog – a requirement for bidding on the Landsat bus contract ‑‑- have until Dec. 15 to submit their designs for consideration.

All of the other spacecraft or instrument contracts NASA’s Science Mission Directorate plans to award in 2007 will go to firms, universities or institutions that already submitted proposals this year or earlier.

NASA’s Discovery program of cost-capped science missions will award a $425 million contract toward the end of next year, but that competition is limited to the list of three candidate missions announced earlier this month. Likewise, NASA is expected to award in September a $475 million contract for a 2011 Mars Scout mission, but NASA will make its selection from a list of finalists to be picked in January from among the more than two-dozen proposals that came in this summer.

Hupp said the agency has no major acquisitions planned for 2007 for the Science Mission Directorate’s heliophysics division, which awarded a contract this past year to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., for the 2012 Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission.

NASA also plans to pick a firm next year to build a lightning-mapping instrument for a geostationary weather satellite project the agency is overseeing on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but NASA will make its selection from among several firms that submitted initial proposals in 2005.

And while NASA announced Oct. 31 to wide acclaim that it will undertake a final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission for a total cost of $900 million, roughly half of that amount already has been spent, and the rest will be doled out under contracts already in place. “We anticipate no future competed opportunities resulting from the decision to execute the SM4 servicing mission,” Hupp said in an e-mail.

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