WASHINGTON — Boeing Co. has joined a team that already includes Lockheed Martin and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) that will compete for one of two contracts, potentially worth $3.1 billion apiece through 2015, to transport cargo to and from the international space station.

The team, led by Chicago-based start-up PlanetSpace, is competing against two companies already receiving NASA assistance to demonstrate space station logistics services: Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of
Hawthorne, Calif., and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.

All three bidders are preparing to submit final offers for the Commercial Resupply Services contracts by a Nov. 7 deadline, with awards scheduled for Dec. 23.

SpaceX and Orbital have been honing their offers in part with funds supplied via NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. PlanetSpace, which is not receiving COTS funding, announced the addition of Chicago-based Boeing to a team that already included two of the most recognizable names in the aerospace industry Oct. 22.

The day before, PlanetSpace met with NASA officials in Houston to present and defend their proposal for meeting NASA’s international space station cargo delivery needs. PlanetSpace, SpaceX and Orbital submitted their original bids in June.

Despite being the only bidder without COTS funding help, PlanetSpace has been meeting with NASA officials periodically to review progress on its system under an unfunded COTS agreement signed in early 2007.

SpaceX is entitled to receive up to $278 million from NASA for meeting progress milestones spelled out in a 2006 COTS award. Orbital’s 2007 COTS award is worth up to $171 million. Both companies are required to show steady progress toward demonstration flights of their respective cargo delivery systems.

NASA has said since beginning the COTS program that winning demonstration funding was no guarantee of landing an actual cargo delivery contract. NASA also made clear that the competition for any such award would be open to any qualified U.S. firm.

Under the Cargo Resupply Services solicitation issued earlier this year, NASA said it was looking for each selected team to deliver a minimum of 20 metric tons to the space station, and return intact at least 3 metric tons, during the seven-year life of the contract. No minimum dollar value was specified, but PlanetSpace Chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria said NASA has spelled out a maximum contract value of $3.1 billion.

Al Simpson, acting director of advanced programs, human spaceflight at Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said meeting NASA’s minimum tonnage requirement would entail 10 to 12 launches of the PlanetSpace system.

Lockheed’s role on the team includes working with Boeing to develop, produce and operate modular Orbital Transfer Vehicles that would transport cargo to and from the station. The vehicle would launch atop the Athena 3 rocket Minneapolis-based ATK would build largely from heritage hardware. The Athena 3 first stage is a 2.5-segment version of the four-segment solid rocket boosters ATK builds for the space shuttle. The second stage is the ATK Castor 120 engine originally developed for small rockets including Lockheed Martin’s Athena and Orbital’s Taurus. PlanetSpace is prime contractor and would manage the contract.

“A very strong team member has just joined us,” Simpson said in reference to Boeing, NASA’s prime contractor for the international space station. “We have been at this for quite a while now and have, I think, a very valid offer to address NASA’s needs for cargo resupply and give them the assurance that somebody can actually bring cargo to the station.”

Simpson said PlanetSpace could be ready to conduct cargo launches in 2011.

SpaceX and Orbital, meanwhile, continue to forge ahead on separate cargo delivery demonstration flights planned for late 2009 and 2010, respectively.

NASA issued a notice Oct. 15 saying it intends to buy regular crew transportation and rescue services from Russia
through June 2016 under a sole-source contract currently under negotiation. The notice, issued by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, indicates the U.S. space agency is negotiating solely for astronaut flights aboard Soyuz vehicles and not for cargo deliveries using Russia’s unmanned Progress ships.

NASA officials have pledged to leave Progress out of the new deal to demonstrate its commitment to buying resupply services from the U.S. private sector.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...