As NASA seeks to rebuild the engineering prowess it says it needs to return to the Moon, U.S. aerospace companies are waiting to see if the space agency’s increased reliance on its regional field centers will mean less work for industry.

J.P. Stevens, vice president for space systems at the Arlington, Va.-based Aerospace Industries Association, said the association’s members, which include NASA contractors both large and small, are concerned the future may hold diminished NASA contracting opportunities as a result of flat budgets and NASA field centers undertaking work traditionally performed by industry.

“We support and understand NASA’s initiative to rebuild core competencies by assigning more work to its field centers. Industry benefits when the government is a smarter buyer, so in that respect it is good for industry,” Stevens said. “On the other hand, we are concerned it will delay or eliminate some work that traditionally has been given to industry.”

Stevens’ comments reflect sentiments that many aerospace executives are expressing in private, both in closed-door meetings with NASA officials and in conversations at industry gatherings.

Changing opportunities

NASA officials acknowledged that the mix of contracting opportunities is changing as the agency sets out to implement the space exploration vision handed down by U.S. President George W. Bush in January 2004, but they maintain that there still will be plenty of work overall for NASA contractors.

“We’ve typically contracted out 85 cents on the dollar with 15 cents staying in-house and that kind of mix isn’t going to change,” said NASA Associate Administrator Rex Geveden. “There’s as much of a market as there has ever been if you look at the budget available for contractor work.”

But Geveden acknowledged that the nature of the NASA market is changing, particularly on the human space flight side of the agency where the focus over the next five years will be on retiring the space shuttle and building its replacement.

“If you look at where our portfolio has been, we have spent a lot of money operating systems, so this is a different market now, ” Geveden said. “It’s a developmental market. It’s an R&D market.”

While that development activity will be led by the NASA field centers — a big change from NASA’s plan as of last year to select a so-called lead systems integrator from industry — Geveden said there will be plenty of work for contractors.

In the year ahead, NASA intends to award a multibillion dollar prime contract for design and development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), a 5.5-meter capsule intended to ferry astronauts to the international space station starting in 2012 and to the Moon in 2018. Two industry teams are competing for that project: one led by Lockheed Martin and the other led by Northrop Grumman and Boeing.

Project Constellation

The CEV is just one element of Project Constellation, the name NASA has given to the space transportation system it intends to build to enable the 2018 return to the Moon. Other elements include a solid rocket booster-based Crew Launch Vehicle, an Earth departure stage and a lunar lander.

NASA initially intended to put industry in charge of Project Constellation and other areas of the exploration program, but current NASA management decided this past spring that the agency itself will perform the role of lead systems integrator, pulling together all the elements that comprise the Constellation system. That decision may deprive industry of a contract comparable to Boeing’s lead systems integration role on the U.S. national missile defense program.

But Geveden, noting that it has been a generation since NASA began developing its current space transportation system, the space shuttle, said having government personnel perform the lead systems engineering and integration role on Constellation is necessary to re-establish the institutional know-how needed to ensure a successful return to the Moon and lay the groundwork for expeditions to Mars and beyond.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has been designated the lead center for Constellation and the Crew Exploration Vehicle. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is lead center for the Crew Launch Vehicle. Florida’s Kennedy Space Center is in charge of launch operations. Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has been selected to lead the communications and navigation effort.

Money still flowing out of gate

Despite this arrangement, something of a return to how NASA did business during the Apollo Moon program of the 1960s, Geveden said there will be an abundance of design, development and integration opportunities for industry.

“Many, many more dollars will be flowing out of the gate than staying in,” Geveden said. “Our contractors are critically important to us. They do 85 percent of our work. We have to rely upon them to get this vision implemented and we will.”

Aside from the CEV contract, NASA intends to spend $500 million in the years ahead on a flight demonstration effort meant to yield commercial cargo and crew delivery services for the international space station, according to Scott Horowitz, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems. Although much of NASA’s constellation acquisition strategy is still a work in progress, there are a number of solicitations planned for the year ahead that could lead to study contracts and technology development work in support of the exploration vision, including work on new space suits and communications and navigation systems.

Throttling back

But as NASA shifts its attention to a more clearly defined Project Constellation, it is throttling back severely on some other efforts deemed lesser priorities, leading to contract cancellations and layoffs.

NASA, for example, has dramatically scaled back the Project Prometheus nuclear power and propulsion initiative to a low-level research effort. NASA also is making deep cuts to a $1 billion portfolio of technology maturation projects initiated less than a year ago. In addition, research projects planned for the space station have been canceled or deferred. Geveden said that even as some work is going away, new work will emerge to take its place.

“There is still an abundance of work to be done,” Geveden said of NASA’s shifting priorities. ” It’s just different work.”

Meanwhile, NASA officials said contractors can expect to see little or no change on the science side of the agency, where most spacecraft missions and instrument development will continue to be contracted out.

“The competencies for building robotic spacecraft are strong inside the gate and inside the prime contractor community because we do a lot of it,” Geveden said.

Aside from assigning one or two major missions that will be given to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the rest of the agency’s Earth science and space science projects will continue to be competed.

Announcing opportunity

The next such major competition is on tap for the year ahead. Mary Cleave, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said the agency intends to release an announcement of opportunity either late this year or in early 2006 for the next round of Discovery-class missions. Cleave said NASA intends to award multiple study contracts in the year ahead for these scientist-led missions, but final selections are not likely to occur before 2007. One notable change for the next Discovery round is that the mission cost cap has been raised from $350 million to $425 million.

NASA also intends to put out its second Mars Scout announcement of opportunity in spring 2006 and select multiple mission concepts by the end of the year for further study.

The first Mars Scout, the Phoenix Lander, is due to launch in 2007.

Finally, NASA plans to select science instruments for the Radiation Belt Storm Probes, a pair of satellites slated to launch in 2011 to study space weather.

Other NASA science mission directorate acquisitions are possible in the year ahead, Cleave said, but depend on decisions being made as NASA and the White House finalize the space agency’s 2007 budget request.

Some of these decisions, according to sources, include whether to build a free-flying Landsat satellite or pursue a commercial data buy and what to do about congressional direction, contained in the 2006 NASA budget bill, to start planning an unmanned mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa that, in contrast to the now cancelled Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission, would not entail development of a nuclear propulsion system.