Lockheed, Northrop Vie for CEV Design Contract

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After a last-minute scramble to adjust to the shifting winds at NASA headquarters, teams led by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have sent the U.S. space agency competing proposals for a contract to design the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), the cornerstone of the U.S. space agency’s plan to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020.

Two weeks out from the May 2 deadline for submitting bids, both teams were scrambling to keep the CEV competition on track. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin touched off the frenzy when he told reporters during an April 18 news conference that he was willing to postpone the proposal deadline in order to restructure the program to avoid, or at least minimize, the gap between retiring the space shuttle and fielding its replacement.

Under NASA’s current timetable, the CEV would not be ready to carry astronauts until four years after the space shuttle is slated to be retired, potentially leaving the United States completely dependent on Russia or other nations for putting people in space.

“We are going to rethink our entire program in that area because, as is well known, publicly released, we’re talking about flying the CEV with crew in 2014. Members of Congress have indicated to me that they consider that unacceptable. People in the executive branch have indicated that they think that it is not advisable. And it doesn’t work for me either,” Griffin told reporters. “So, we’re going to be reviewing those plans. If that requires that we delay the responses to the [request for proposal] that is out on the street, then so be it. Better to take a little time up front and get what we really want.”

Griffin put special assistant Chris Shank, formerly a staffer for the House Science Committee, in charge of reviewing NASA’s options for accelerating the CEV program to avoid what is now referred to as “the gap.”

The CEV teams and their consultants were watching NASA headquarters closely for any indication of last-minute changes or outright cancellation of the solicitation. By April 26, word had filtered out of NASA that the May 2 deadline would hold but that modifications intended to speed up the program could be issued after proposals were in.

The biggest immediate change, according to consultants to the CEV teams and other analysts closely following the competition, is that NASA now is leaning toward making only one award.

Prior to Griffin coming on board, NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate was planning to award the Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman teams separate $1 billion contracts to spend the next three years refining their CEV concepts and preparing for a mid-2008 prototype flyoff intended to help NASA pick one team to build the operational vehicle.

Consultants and analysts said the 2008 flyoff appears to be out of the picture and NASA will decide before year’s end whether it wants Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman to design the CEV.

Consultants and analysts also said that NASA will take a little longer than previously planned to evaluate proposals and make its selection.

A contract announcement now is expected in December instead of September.