WASHINGTON — Chicago-based Boeing Co., NASA’s prime contractor on the international space station (ISS), is looking to add payload processing of station-bound cargo to the work it does in support of the orbiting outpost. The company announced plans Jan. 18 to bid on a new NASA solicitation calling for physical preparation of cargo headed to the station aboard U.S. and foreign spacecraft beginning in January 2011, three months after the agency’s space shuttle fleet is due to retire.

NASA currently is counting on two U.S. companies — Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. and Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) — to complete work on competing rockets and cargo vessels in time to begin making supply runs to the space station early next year. According to the agency’s Cargo Mission Contract solicitation, released Jan. 15, NASA is looking for a contractor to physically prepare station-bound cargo for flight aboard a variety of cargo vehicles, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9-launched Dragon capsule and Orbital’s Taurus 2-launched Cygnus vehicle.

Orbital and SpaceX are developing their systems with a combined $450 million provided under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. In addition, SpaceX and Orbital were awarded a combined $3.5 billion in December 2008 to conduct a total of 20 cargo flights to the station through 2016.

In addition to Orbital and SpaceX, NASA will also rely on the Russian-owned Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, the European Automated Transfer Vehicle and the Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle to deliver cargo to the station, according to the Jan. 15 solicitation.

In its bid for the NASA award, dubbed the ISS Cargo Mission Contract, Boeing expects to draw on experience designing and building major U.S. elements of the $100 billion facility. Boeing currently oversees new hardware and software integration on the station, including components supplied by international partners. And under its Checkout, Assembly and Payload Processing Services contract with NASA, Boeing receives, labels and stows all NASA payloads flying into space. In addition, the company provides payload engineering and ground support to shuttle missions and unpacks cargo returning from orbit.

“Boeing’s experience with the International Space Station program allows us to provide an offer that supports NASA’s priorities for safety, mission success, and innovation,” Brad Cothran, Boeing’s capture team lead for the contract, said in a Jan. 18 company news release.

Lockheed Martin Corp. currently provides payload-processing services for shuttle missions to station under NASA’s existing ISS Cargo Mission Contract. Under the terms of the agreement, Lockheed prepares cargo for internal and external stowage aboard the shuttle, and is responsible for prepacking and shipping cargo payloads overseas for station missions aboard the European Automated Transfer Vehicle and the Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle.

With the shuttle’s retirement, cargo processing for some classes of payloads will no longer be needed since all existing and planned cargo vessels are considerably smaller than the space shuttle orbiter.

However, NASA intends to augment the new ISS Cargo Mission Contract to include preparing and packaging flight crew equipment — the food, clothing, toiletries and other necessities astronauts require on board the station. The packing of such essentials is currently managed by Houston-based United Space Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed that helps operate and maintain the space shuttle fleet. Once the orbiters are retired, NASA intends to fold the flight crew equipment processing work into the follow-on Cargo Mission Contract, according to the solicitation.

“There are portions of the shuttle program that, even when it retires, some of those functions are still needed,” Cothran said in a Jan. 21 interview. “So the new contract will be a combination of what’s left of the old Cargo Mission Contract plus the flight crew equipment part of the shuttle program combined into one.”

Contract bids are due to NASA April 1, and the agency is slated to select a contractor by the end of September. Work on the potential seven-year contract is to begin in January 2011 with a base period of three years followed by four consecutive one-year options.

At press time, Lockheed Martin Corp. officials had not returned telephone inquiries questioning whether or not the company would compete for the new Cargo Mission Contract. Multiple telephone calls to United Space Alliance were not returned by press time.