WASHINGTON — Fresh from winning the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle prime contract, Lockheed Martin is setting its sights on the next major piece of NASA’s Constellation program still up for grabs — the Ares 1 upper stage.

With a contract award for the human-rated upper stage expected around this time next year, Lockheed Martin announced Sept. 13 that it was teaming with Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to compete for the project.

NASA is due to release a draft solicitation for the upper stage in November followed by a formal request for proposals in February. A contract award is expected by the end of 2007.

NASA intends to conduct its first launch of the Ares 1 with an inert upper stage in April 2009. The first flight of a full-fledged Ares with a live upper stage is slated for around 2011.

Promontory, Utah-based ATK Launch Systems Group, which is leading the team’s Ares 1 upper-stage capture effort, already has responsibility for building the Ares 1 first stage, a five-segmented solid-rocket booster similar to the boosters the company builds for the space shuttle . Similarly, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne already has responsibility for developing and producing the J-2X engine that NASA has chosen to power the Ares 1 upper stage.

Lockheed Martin, which is providing the avionics for the so-called Ares 1-1 test flight, builds large cryogenic tanks for the space shuttle and other launchers .

Ron Dittemore, president of ATK Launch Systems Group, said Sept.13 the three companies will open a shared office in Huntsville, Ala., to prepare a joint proposal for the Ares 1 upper stage. Huntsville is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which is leading the Ares 1 development .

Dittemore said the team, while extremely well-suited to produce the Ares 1 upper stage for NASA because of its existing roles on the main stage, by no means has a lock on the competition.

“We don’t think that way,” Dittemore said. “We believe there is going to be strong competition. We are doing our best to formulate a very strong team.”

Brett Lambert, an aerospace consultant here, agreed that ATK and its teammates have an advantage heading into the competition, but said he expects NASA to get other competitive bids for the upper-stage production work.

“It’s a formidable team and has to be seen as a front runner,” Lambert said, “But I’m sure there will be other bidders.”

NASA also expects a robust competition for the work.

“Based on industry response to date we expect this to be a very competitive acquisition, NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said Sept. 14.

Among other competitors interested in the upper stage is Boeing, which along with teammate Northrop Grumman lost the Orion prime contract to Lockheed Martin but vowed to redouble its efforts to win other Constellation work.

“We will be pursuing the upper stage,” Boeing spokeswoman Tanya Deason-Sharp said Sept. 14. “We haven’t decided yet what our team will look like . We want to ensure we build the best team possible in order to meet Marshall’s design and production needs.” She also did not rule out Boeing fielding a team with some of the same players on the ATK, Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne team.

“I don’t think that everybody has signed exclusive contracts,” she said. “We may want to team with other people that are on [the ATK, Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne ] team.”

ATK’s Dittemore said it is possible other parts of ATK or Lockheed Martin could partner with Boeing or anyone else, but said the exact lineup ATK and its teammates announced Sept. 13 is exclusive.