As teams led by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman race to finish competing their Crew Exploration Vehicle bids in advance of a March 20 deadline, a team of NASA engineers is busy writing its own proposal for the United States’ next astronaut-carrying spaceship.

Called the CEV Smart Buyer initiative, the internal NASA acquisition exercise got under way Jan. 23 at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Ralph Roe, director of the NASA Engineering and Safety Center at Langley , is leading a design team that, like its counterparts at Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, will be putting in long hours in the weeks ahead coming up with an innovative design that meets the criteria spelled out in the CEV Call for Improvements NASA issued Jan. 10.

But unlike the Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman teams, Roe’s CEV Smart Buyer Design Team has no chance of landing a multibillion-dollar prime contract.

Langley spokesman Keith Henry said the CEV proposal that Roe and his team are working on is meant to be used by NASA’s Constellation Program officials to help with the evaluation of the CEV proposals they receive from the industry teams.

Henry, who said his knowledge about the program was limited, was not able to make Roe available for an interview by press time. Dolores Beasley, a spokeswoman for NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters here, referred questions about the CEV Smart Buyer project to the Langley officials running the effort.

The official charter establishing the CEV Smart Buyer project describes it as a 60- to 90-day effort intended to yield “an innovative in-house CEV design” that will be briefed to NASA’s CEV source selection officials “as background” when they grill the contractors over their proposals.

While the CEV Smart Buyer team is not being asked to produce a “fully competing proposal” that NASA could select instead of either of the bids the agency is expecting from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the charter establishing the Smart Buyer team said “lessons learned” from the activity could be applied to future Constellation Program development efforts “wherein a competing government-led bid may be possible.”

Another point of the project, according to the charter, is to help NASA personnel sharpen the skills they need to be more effective buyers of spacecraft and other systems.

“In addition to producing an innovative, independent design of the CEV, this project will also serve to rekindle the agency’s in-house ability to be good stewards of the design and development, test and evaluation (DDT&E) process when procuring future flight systems,” the charter says. “This project will provide a snap assessment of lessons learned of the agency’s current DDT&E capabilities and allow Senior Management to address any weaknesses related to skill mix and technical competencies required for future competitive procurements.”

That NASA could stand to be a smarter buyer of space hardware was a point raised last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. In a report issued Jan. 23, the GAO said that NASA needs to make more consistent use of “knowledge-based acquisition processes” in order to complete more projects on time and on budget.

The report concluded that “NASA’s failure to define requirements adequately and quantify the resources needed to meet those requirements resulted in some projects costing more, taking longer and achieving less than originally planned.” In its official response to the report, NASA said it would be taking steps to improve the way it manages programs.