NASA went ahead and accepted Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) proposals from teams led by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman even as the U.S. space agency continues to develop plans to speed up by several years its multibillion-dollar effort to replace the space shuttle with a vehicle capable of going to the Moon.

NASA previously had planned to give both teams separate $1 billion contracts in the fall to spend the next three years preparing for CEV prototype flight demonstrations meant to help the space agency pick a single contractor by 2009 to design and build an operational vehicle that would be ready to fly by 2014.

Hoping to avoid a four-year gap between the planned 2010 retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet and the introduction of the CEV, NASA now plans to scrap the flyoff and make its contractor selection in early 2006. NASA notified the U.S. Congress in writing May 5 of its new CEV acquisition plan.

NASA does not yet know how much sooner it can expect to field a CEV capable of carrying astronauts to the international space station and eventually, with some modification, to the Moon. An Exploration Systems Architecture Study was recently set up by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and given until mid-July to come up with some answers (see related story, “Griffin Throws Exploration Planning on the Fast Track,” page 7 ).

In the meantime, NASA intends to give both teams small contracts in the weeks ahead to cover the costs of responding to a series of so-called “Call for Improvements” that will guide any changes the teams have to make to their proposals to respond to any new CEV requirements that emerge from the architecture study.

According to aerospace analysts, some of the new CEV requirements not included in the original call for proposals are: be ready by as early as 2010 to fly crew transfer missions to the international space station; provide accommodations for up to six astronauts; and the ability to perform unmanned space station re-supply missions.

Under the old plan, sending the CEV to the space station was identified as a possibility, but not a firm requirement.

The Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman teams each spent an estimated $20 million to $30 million, according to aerospace analysts and consultants tracking the competition, preparing their CEV proposals with the expectation of getting $1 billion design contracts that would keep them busy through 2008. Now with NASA planning to make a down select in 2006, the stakes are suddenly much higher.

Northrop Grumman’s teammates include Boeing, Italian space hardware manufacturer Alenia Spazio, the Burlingham, Calif.-based engineering firm ARES Corp., Cambridge, Mass.-based Draper Laboratory, and United Space Alliance, the Houston-based Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that maintains and operates NASA’s space shuttle fleet.

Lockheed Martin’s team also includes United Space Alliance, in addition to EADS Space Transportation of Europe, Hamilton Sundstrand of Windsor Locks, Conn., Honeywell Defense and Space Electronics Systems, Minneapolis, Minn., and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp.

The uncertainty over the future direction of the CEV competition did not deter Lockheed Martin from publicly unveiling its vehicle concept.

The Lockheed team proposed a lifting body design that would rely on parachutes and airbags to land either on a dry lake bed in the Western United States or the open desert of Woomera, Australia.

Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin vice president and CEV program manager, said May 3 that the team’s roughly 10-meter long vehicle design would accommodate six astronauts or nearly 2,300 kilograms of cargo. Although the vehicle was designed primarily with lunar trips in mind, Lacefield said the Lockheed CEV could fly to the space station as soon as 2010, although he would not say at what cost to NASA. The Moon-bound version, he said, could still be ready by 2014.

Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, would not discuss its CEV design or release artwork. Analysts closely tracking the CEV competition, however, said the Northrop team proposed a ballistic capsule that, like the Lockheed concept, would rely on parachutes and airbags to land.

Northrop Grumman spokesman Brooks McKinney said May 5 that the team has decided not to unveil its CEV concept while the terms of the competition remain in flux.

“We anticipate that there will be some changes to the CEV competition in the near future,” McKinney said. “As a team we stand ready to support any new requirements for CEV that NASA feels can best meet its space exploration goals. We would rather not discuss our CEV concept publicly until the requirements of the competition become more clear. But our top priority remains helping NASA design the safest, most reliable, most affordable CEV possible.”

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